Charlie or Ahmed?

If you notice at all the international news, by now you must have heard about the assassination of editors, cartoonists, and staffers at France’s Charlie Hebdo. The attack must be considered an assassination, since some of the victims were specifically targeted by name. It’s also appropriate to use the term “assassination”, given the origins of the word.

For the record, the dead are:

  • Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier, 47, the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo and one of its top cartoonists.
  • Bernard “Tignous” Verlhac, 57, a member of a group of artists called “Cartoonists of Peace” and also belonged to the Press Judiciare, an association of French journalists covering the courts.
  • Jean “Cabu” Cabut, 76, established himself as one of France’s best-known cartoonists over a career that spanned 50 years.
  • Georges Wolinski, 80, another of Charlie Hebdo’s veteran cartoonists. He was awarded the Legion of Honor, France’s highest decoration, in 2005.
  • Bernard Maris, 68, wrote a weekly column in Charlie Hebdo called “Uncle Bernard,” was a regular commentator for the France Inter radio network, and taught economics at a branch of the University of Paris.
  • Michel Renaud, the founder of the Clermont Ferrand-based festival of travel journals “Rendez-vous du Carnet de Voyage” who was visting the offices at the time.
  • Police officers Ahmed Merabet and Franck Brinsolaro
  • Three other staffers and a maintenance worker were also killed, but I haven’t yet been able to find their names.

The assassins identified themselves as members of one of the Al-Qaeda offshoots, and cited the paper’s “insults” to Islam as the reason for the killings.

Needless to say, journalists around the world are sharing in the pain. Nicolas Demorand, former editor-in-chief of the leftist French newspaper Libération, could barely hold back his tears in an interview with Sydney Brownstone of The Stranger, a weekly paper based in Seattle:

“I lost friends. When I was editor-in-chief of Libération, Charlie Hebdo had been targeted in a first attack. So I invited them [to] Libération in order for them to be able to publish another issue of Charlie Hebdo. Incredibly kind guys. All those guys—the guys who had been murdered today—they were funny. They were always laughing about all that fucking mess. And they had bottles of wine. They were amazing drinkers. And they took their pens, they took sheets of paper, and they drew.

In France, Charlie Hebdo was sort of a good friend. You don’t necessarily buy Charlie Hebdo once a week. But you’re glad. You’re proud that such a newspaper can exist in France. That such guys, such kind guys, do the job. The job serious newspapers don’t do anymore….

You know, I cried all day long. I never cry. You know, we’re journalists. We know about shit, about sadness, about horror, about misery, about terror, about all that shit. We know about that. I cried all day long, you know. They killed the best guys. They killed the best guys. It’s horrible. It’s really horrible….

These guys, you wanted them to be your son, you wanted them to be your father, you know, idealistic guys from 1968. They thought it was great to fight for liberty, for freedom, for freedom of speech, for freedom of laughing at everything, freedom of being politically incorrect, freedom of just being free.

A heck of a lot of people are sharing the hashtags “#JeSuisCharlie”, “#IamCharlie”, “#NousSommesToutCharlie”, or displaying signs and banners with those words to express their sympathy or otherwise show support for a free press.

But you’ll be hard pressed to find much that actually shows what was so blasphemous to the assassins. Yes, there are few images of covers of the paper (I’m particularly tickled by the one showing a stereotypical Muslim male – beard and turban – grinning and saying “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing”), but nothing that any reasonable person could consider seriously offensive. They refer to other cartoons, but don’t show them.

So what’s with the self-censorship? You insist on a free press, but restrain yourselves? Are you cowards, afraid that some other assassins will pay you a visit?

It’s a fair question; one that deserves a response. “Freedom of speech” does indeed have limits. There are laws about libel, slander, incitement to riot, false accusations, death threats, et al. There is a line somewhere between honest, legitimate criticism and deliberate insults. And there is also the matter of good taste.

One might say that “They are just cartoons! Can’t you take a joke?” But even cartoons have power. It was the editorial cartoons of Thomas Nast that famously led to the demise of Tammany Hall boss William M. Tweed, and even his final arrest in Spain. Reportedly, officials there nabbed him when they noted his resemblance to his caricature in Nast’s cartoons.

“Let’s stop those damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers write about me – my constituents can’t read, but damn it, they can see pictures.” – William M. “Boss” Tweed (attributed)

You can still support Charlie Hebdo, even if you don’t necessarily want to show their cartoons.

Arab political activist Dyab Abou Jahjah noted that police officer Ahmed Merabet, who was shot in the head in an intentional execution, was a Muslim. He tweeted:

I am not Charlie, I am Ahmed the dead cop. Charlie ridiculed my faith and culture and I died defending his right to do so. #JesuisAhmed

You might stick a crucifix into a jar of urine, but I can still say it’s in (at best) questionable taste when you call it Art. Your punk rock group might base its “performances” less on music than on seemingly trying to offend as many people as possible, so you won’t get much sympathy from me when you are arrested. But nonetheless, there still should not be laws that absolutely forbid you from doing such things. And you sure as hell don’t deserve to be murdered for them.

I am Ahmed.

3 thoughts on “Charlie or Ahmed?

  1. Pingback: 2015 In Review | Pure Blather

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