It was a “you’ll remember where you were when you heard the news” moment.
I remember where I was when I heard the news about:
- Bobby Kennedy being assassinated
- Princess Marina dying (admittedly a bit of a niche one, that)
- Lord Mountbatten being killed
- John Lennon being shot
- Princess Diana dying
- The planes flying into the twin towers
And now I add to that list:
- Five cartoonists, the editor, three other staff, two policeman and a visitor are killed at a French satirical newspaper
“It’s like Private Eye being attacked” – was my first thought on hearing the news.
Cartoonists. Absolutely crazy. You couldn’t make it up. How could people be so dense, how could they have brains with a texture so like porcine agricultural waste products, as to kill cartoonists?
But we shouldn’t single out the cartoonists. All twelve people killed were somehow working to prepare, or supporting those who were preparing, Charlie Hebdo. The exception was Ahmed Merabet, the local bobby who answered the call to go along to the incident.
To get things in perspective, Mark Steel, in a wonderful article, reminds us that crazy people go on killing sprees all the time. In the USA it is a regular occurrence.
But there was something different about this atrocity. There is a deep connection with the right of free speech, of course. It should also, I hope, remind us of our ties with the French. It reminds me of my own abiding francophilia, which was born out of being taught French by une française and being thoroughly enchanted by Albert Camus’ “La Peste”.
Despite some inexactitudes (perhaps born out of its instant conception via Twitter) I like the “Je suis Charlie” motto. Firstly, obviously, it is in French. It is a nice hat-doff to les françaises to occasionally talk their language, however briefly, particularly at this time of national crisis. It’s a gorgeous, elegant language.
Secondly, it succinctly expresses solidarity with the French and those who embrace free speech.
The motto has taken a bit of a knock. From the summaries I have read, (see also here and here) Charlie Hebdo was certainly a satirical publication. For satire to be effective, it has to be “biting”. That is the whole point. Am I Charlie to the extent that I would personally publish depictions of religious figures? No. Am I Charlie to the extent that I am comfortable with depictions of religious figures? No. (But satire should never be comfortable.) But I am Charlie to the extent that I defend the right of people to publish satire that may offend, as long as it is within the law. (And Charlie Hebdo was taken to court by 2006 by two Muslim organisations for depictions, but the case was dismissed by the courts in 2007.)
There may be some of this which is lost in translation, both linguistically and culturally. Imagine a non-British person seeing a clip of Alf Garnett in full flow on “Till death us do part“. They might well conclude that it was a racist show (indeed many British people have), which, of course, it wasn’t. It was a masterful piece of satire. Well, that is what it is like, I suspect, for non-French people to dip into “Charlie Hebdo” and make judgments along the lines of “racist”. It is faintly ridiculous.
I would, however, state one caveat in the area of free speech. As usual there is a great deal of sense emanating from the small, but perfectly formed, Suffolk village of Creeting St Peter. This country is founded on a tradition of free speech, but also tolerance, respect and, yes, politeness. We should treat free speech with respect. We shouldn’t poke people in the eye with it. We shouldn’t indulge in gratuitous offence-giving. (And good satire is not normally gratuitous – there is a point to it, as there clearly was with some of the more infamous Charlie Hebdo cartoons). However, we do have relatively sophisticated laws in this regard. As long as publications keep within the law, as Charlie Hebdo did, then I think it is OK to be them when twelve people are mown down at their offices.