It is the height of bad taste, and truly crass, to criticize the bereaved. It is thus a good thing that in the wake of the 12 murders in and around the offices of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, Parisians and their supporters abroad have begun tweeting themselves holding a sign that says: I am Charlie Hebdo. In French, of course.
That outpouring of support is also trending on Twitter, under the same hashtag. It is, in a certain respect, reassuring, and commendable of the demonstrators.
But it is also a lie. They are not all Charlie Hebdo. Neither are we, for that matter. If they were, they would be holding up not that solemnly neutered placard, but instead some of the images that contributed to the massacre.
Al-Baghdadi, for instance, the leader of the Islamic State, offering an ironic season’s greetings. Or Mohammed promising a hundred lashes for those who don’t laugh at his jokes. Or Mohammed disrobed, asking if we like his butt. The jokes aren’t really that funny, but some of the drawings are amusing. And a few of the demonstrators did hold them up, in defiance to those who would bury them.
Not enough, though. The poor doomed staff of Hebdo had a lot of courage: it is no mean thing to thumb your nose at society’s social mores. A mass demonstration of Charlie Hebdos would slather those images wall-to-electronic-wall, all over the Internet and the streets of Paris.
They’d make it so you couldn’t walk down the street without seeing a crude caricature at one of the world’s major religions. It’s not quite so different from the satire that all other religions have to endure, whether at the hands of government-funded artists, Comedy Central, lazy columnists, or simply atheistic ronin.
Islam, as a subject, is not quite alone. Scientology is notoriously thin-skinned, and often sends its hordes of lawyers and celebrities after those who might crack a smile. But that’s more or less the sum total of taboo subjects in the liberal West: Scientology and Islam. I’m not sure either would be pleased by their company.
To be fair, it’s not as if the United States is a shining beacon of freedom in this respect. That hazy right of free speech – which really shouldn’t be too hazy, constitutionally speaking – seems to flicker all the time.
The Great Benghazi Scandal really focused around the Obama Administration’s blaming of a YouTube movie trailer, not radical Islamists, for a coordinated attack that killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens. All the other hubbub about talking points, response teams, stand-down orders, and embassy security are just chatter. After Obama and Clinton made reassuring statements about how much they hated the film, its director was thrown in jail.
The Administration has also weighed in before on Charlie Hebdo. When the paper published drawings mocking Mohammed in 2012, White House spokesperson Jay Carney “question[ed] the judgment” of the magazine. To be fair, it also included language about free speech, and was thus somewhat stronger than the White House statement on the current shooting, which makes no such claim.
Nor should blame be limited to the public sector -- media outlets have been remarkably cagey about actually showing the images that raised so much Islamic ire in France. A leaked CNN memo reminded employees that the scrupulously neutral network would not be showing the cartoons or even protestors holding pictures of the cartoons.
The dishonor doesn’t fall completely on the French or the Americans. There’s enough to spare for the vapid activism of social media, for the belief that tweeting something is akin to doing something. There’s very little doubt, for example, that #JeSuisCharlie will go the way of #BringBackOurGirls in Nigeria and the #jan25 of those Egyptian Facebook artists trapped between Morsi and Sisi.
The hashtag chosen for the Charlie Hebdo staff is even grotesquely self-referential. “I.” Perhaps “We” would have been better. But not very much. Something else has to be done. Something more substantial than a hashtag.
I am deeply, deeply shocked and angry about the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. But I am just as deeply concerned that it will change nothing, just as the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh and countless other acts of terror against artists changed nothing. Our societies must shape themselves so that these attacks do not happen – that they are no longer even thought of, they are taboo, like dueling in the past century.
How the West gets from here to there must be the next question: there, where nothing is off limits, where all can be offended without murder, and where everybody, everybody in these free and democratic societies has learned to take a joke.
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