What do you say when you have nothing to say?
That is the dilemma suddenly thrust on political leaders and editorialists in France since three masked gunmen entered the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and massacred a dozen people.
The assassins got away. But not for long. The men were well-armed killers. Charlie Hebdo regularly received death threats since publishing derisive cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed several years ago. But the controversy seemed to be largely forgotten, the weekly’s circulation had declined (like the press in general) and police protection had been relaxed. The two policemen still on guard were easily shot by the gunmen before they entered the offices in the midst of an editorial meeting. Rarely were so many cartoonists and writers present at once. Twelve people were slaughtered with automatic weapons, and eleven others wounded, some critically.
In addition to the cartoonist known as Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier, age 47) who was current editor in chief of the magazine, the victims included the two best-known cartoonists in France: Cabu (Jean Cabut, age 76), Georges Wolinski (80 years old). A couple of generations have grown up with Cabu and Wolinski, gentle mirrors of the sentiments of the French left.
As they left, one killer came back to finish off a policeman who lay wounded in the street. They stopped to shout: “The Prophet is avenged!” Then they fled toward the northeastern suburbs.
Crowds gathered spontaneously in the Place de la République in Paris, not far from the tiny street where the Charlie Hebdo had its offices. Brave, false slogans spread: “We are Charlie!” But they are not. “Charlie lives!” No, it doesn’t. It has been just about wiped out.
Everyone is shocked. That goes without saying. This was cold-blooded murder, an unpardonable crime. That also goes without saying, but everyone will be saying it. And there is a lot more that everyone will be saying, such as “we will not allow Islamic extremists to intimidate us and take away our freedom of speech”, and so on. President François Hollande naturally stressed that France is united against the assassins. Initial reactions to an atrocity of this sort are predictable. “We will not be intimidated! We will not give up our freedoms!”
Yes and no. Surely even the most crazed religious fanatic could not imagine that this massacre of humorists would convert France to Islam. The result is certain to be quite the opposite: a reinforcement of growing anti-Muslim sentiment. If this is a provocation, what did it mean to provoke? And what will it provoke? The obvious danger is that, like 9/11, it may strengthen police surveillance, and indeed weaken French liberties, not in the way that the killers allegedly seek (limiting freedom to criticize Islam) but in the way liberties have been restricted in post-9/11 America, by some imitation of the Patriot Act.
Personally, I never liked the provocative covers of Charlie Hebdo, where the cartoons insulting the Prophet – or for that matter Jesus – tended to be displayed. A matter of taste. I don’t consider scatological, obscene drawings to be effective arguments, whether against religion or authority in general. Not my cup of tea.
The individuals who were murdered were more than Charlie Hebdo. The drawings of Cabu and Wolinski appeared in many publications, and were known to a public that never bought Charlie Hebdo. The artists and writers at that editorial meeting all had their talents and qualities which had nothing to do with the “blasphemic” cartoons. Freedom of the press is also freedom to be vulgar and stupid from time to time.
Charlie Hebdo was not in reality a model of freedom of speech. It has ended up, like so much of the “human rights left”, defending U.S.-led wars against “dictators”.
In 2002, Philippe Val, who was editor in chief at the time, denounced Noam Chomsky for anti-Americanism and excessive criticism of Israel and of mainstream media. In 2008, another of Charlie Hebdo’s famous cartoonists, Siné, wrote a short note citing a news item that President Sarkozy’s son Jean was going to convert to Judaism to marry the heiress of a prosperous appliance chain. Siné added the comment, “He’ll go far, this lad.” For that, Siné was fired by Philippe Val on grounds of “anti-Semitism”. Siné promptly founded a rival paper which stole a number of Charlie Hebdo readers, revolted by CH’s double standards.
In short, Charlie Hebdo was an extreme example of what is wrong with the “politically correct” line of the current French left. The irony is that the murderous attack by the apparently Islamist killers has suddenly sanctified this fading expression of extended adolescent revolt, which was losing its popular appeal, into the eternal banner of a Free Press and Liberty of Expression. Whatever the murderers intended, this is what they have achieved. Along with taking innocent lives, they have surely deepened the sense of brutal chaos in this world, aggravated distrust between ethnic groups in France and in Europe, and no doubt accomplished other evil results as well. In this age of suspicion, conspiracy theories are certain to proliferate.
Diana Johnstone is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions. Her new book, Queen of Chaos: the Misadventures of Hillary Clinton, will be published by CounterPunch in 2015. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org