Nothing about this is funny.
Not counting the perpetrators, some 16 French citizens lie dead, including several singled out and executed presumably in revenge for offending Islam.
I’m referring, of course, to the massacre at the Paris newspaper Charlie Hebdo—a weekly publication usually described as a satirical—and the subsequent manhunt in which the terrorists were cornered and were themselves killed.
Already, in the attempt to parse such horror, the chief narrative being forwarded by the public and the press is to portray the victims—among them cartoonists and editors—as martyrs to free speech.
The truth, I’m afraid, is more complicated: “rarely pure and never simple,” as Oscar Wilde once said. It’s certainly more nuanced than the provocative, nay, pornographic cartoons which made Charlie Hebdo notorious.
Of course, to say that the victims were less than perfect champions of thoughtful inquiry in no way mitigates the crime of their murder.
Put simply: To kill wantonly in the name of one’s God constitutes a supreme evil. But then again, to kill civil dialogue by slow poison, to pillory the deeply held beliefs of others because it’s good for newsstand sales, is pretty bad, too.
And pillorying those with whom they disagree is what Charlie Hebdo journalists have done best.
The focus now, understandably, is on the newspaper’s skewering of Islam. But as a publication devoted to atheism and leftist politics, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists have also savaged other religions with equal fervor.
The prophet Mohammed, for example, was once portrayed as a sort of scrofulous porn figure. But other cartoons depicted Roman Catholic nuns committing sex acts and the three persons of the holy trinity copulating with themselves.
Editorial director Stéphane Charbonnier, among those called out by name and assassinated, defended this sort of deeply offensive content as legitimate discourse protected by French law. (And he would have known about what is and isn’t legal, considering how many times Charlie Hebdo has been sued for alleged slander.)
The problem with his assertion is that—like legal protections for accused criminals—free speech laws are supposed to protect the innocent. These legal safeguards exist to prevent authorities from persecuting earnest critics and gadflies whose messages, however unpopular, are meant to enlighten and better society.
Too, there is often much confounding of free speech with free expression. The former is a human right, whereas the latter is too often on the level of a transient flashing on the common—the sort for which Charlie Hebdo was renowned.
Sadly, Charlie Hebdo’s rhetorical cudgel hardly fits the definition of earnest criticism. On the contrary, its so-called satire is in reality smug, fatuous, prurient and pointless. After all, if suddenly everyone on the planet became preening, godless leftists, holding themselves above all criticism, who would the newspaper have left to excoriate?
Ultimately, then, Charlie Hebdo’s raison d’être became its own dead end. Devoid even of genuine humor, its provocations and last week’s bloody reprisals yielded nothing but pure tragedy, if one may use the word “pure” and Charlie Hebdo in the same sentence.
Because what good can possibly come from dying for filthy cartoons?