Thoughts on the murders at Charlie Hebdo
I myself am an off and on cartoonist, what developed from doodling in class combined with other interests. In college at the University of Chicago I was the editor and a contributor for two issues of Breakdown Magazine, an anthology of cartoons (mostly) by students. The second issue that I edited especially was controversial and resulted in the magazine being defunded by the student government. One day when I was hawking the magazine in front of one of the largest buildings for classes, a foreign professor was assassinated in a restroom of the Divinity school building, the building that was to my back. It was quietly done and covered up, if you missed the hour of yellow tape and the A3 article in the Chicago Tribune, you might have never known. It remains a relatively unknown case, and an unsolved one, even though since then a book has been written about it. The connection to this recent event is minimal I suppose, just a personal coincidence linking controversial drawings and writings and a violent end. I suppose I tell the story because I think it is important to see this type of violence as part of the overspill of war. In this case, the most likely thing that happened was that the professor was made an example in his exile community for criticizing the results of a recent revolution by writing columns in an expatriate newspaper based in New York and was thus targeted and murdered by still powerful secret police.
I was politically positioned in the sense that I was opposed to the Persian Gulf War that had just taken place (this was 1991) and part of my aim in editing a deliberately controversial publication was to shake up complacent acceptance of the status quo. As a large goal this was an abject failure. Whatever eddies were stirred, weren’t on the level of the wide-eyed professor, or of Charlie Hebdo.
There’s been a lot of interesting discussion regarding the actual position of the Charlie Hebdo satire, who they were punching at and in what context. Some of it is quite incisive and interesting and some belongs to the obtuse and blowhards. To that mix, I’d like to add my own thought experiment, deliberately absurd. What if this all took place in a time-machine and the gunmen were French resistance fighters and the journalists in question were actual Nazi propagandists in their weekly meeting with Joseph Goebbels?
Sorry, that was stupid.
Just to be clear though, I don’t mean this as a comparison, please give me that much credit, comparing anyone to a Nazi is an overused and often lazy tactic. Yes the Nazis had cartoonists that depicted those they deemed untermenschen or worse, (click if you dare) and yes I saw someone on the internet call the dead French cartoonists Nazis, but the point is that if we imagine a massacre, an attack on civilians as a strategic act of war, and valorize one side, suddenly it resembles something that happens nearly everyday in the hell zones that we as humans have created. It’s a shocking bit of blowback for Western democracies to absorb right now.
Most everyone is debating the Charlie Hebdo massacre as a free speech issue but this seems circular to me. So Democracy equals free speech and free speech equals democracy; but the killers weren’t debating how things should work in a democracy. They’re not interested in having a democracy. When we get caught up in that question we’re debating ourselves on terms that are not up for debate, as they are aspirational.
This was an attack by Al Qaeda on France. Although France is not supposed to be at war, things are pretty grim now in AQ land, places like Iraq, Syria and Nigeria. There’s supposed to be a membrane separating the civilized world from the hell-zones, but this event represents a puncture in that membrane, a puncture by a bunch of losers who were sick of delivering pizzas.The killers were criminals, and they were AQ (as well as being French citizens), whether they took orders or independently conceived and launched the mission. The fact that they declared themselves to be AQ, invoked the prophet and so on makes many want to discuss and parse religion, which seems a no-brainer but I think is a mistake. These brothers and others before them were religious hacks and lived deeply secular lives before putting on an armband (as it were) for their final act. Religion was just a touchstone in their personal struggle, a web they were caught up in that is in many ways a global political critique of the West, or rather the developed world. The Cold War no longer fits as a backdrop for that critique so if America destabilizes Iraq in a war of adventure, as it did Cambodia in the 1970’s, the nihilistic insurgents clad in black pajamas declare themselves communists, or jihadists, depending on the context of what is most oppositional at the time.
Although I see this as an act of war, I say this without the hot-blooded analysis that declares war, as Bush’s America so readily did after 9-11. Rather it is that war that I am declaring this to be, not a future war, though we can predict we will have those. This war, this Charlie Hebdo war is an extension of the second Iraq war, the war where it was as if Japan invaded Pearl Harbor, so we invaded China because they looked the same to us. To enrich contractors like Halliburton and Brown and Root, the only goal of the Iraq war that was actually achieved. That was a stupid war and the Hebdo war was a stupid war, the Kouachi brothers are not going to stop cartooning any more than the Tsaernav brothers stopped marathons. For that matter, the Khmer Rouge also failed to stop vegetable markets, despite their best efforts.
On the other hand democracy is looking less and less like democracy (if it ever was)(so I guess the terrorists have won)…so what do we do?
First off, let’s recall that Bush’s war, Cheney’s war, America’s war did not slap sense into our perceived enemies, or eliminate them, it only made things worse. The utter sadism and depravity unleashed at Abu Gahraib, and the same sort of acts further revealed by the CIA report only pumped more poison into the situation. Allowing sadists to sate themselves turned out to be bad foreign policy.
Obama’s drone wars have the advantage (when trying to retain the image of a liberal democracy) that the scale of desolation is decidedly of a lower order. But if it were an experiment we would have to conclude that the number of innocents killed has still been above the magic threshold that produces more new enemies than true enemies that it kills. So it fails on its own terms.
Realistically, something war-like and violent must be done in response to such an act, so in such cases this reaction must be channeled into police work, into catching the gunmen, as was done.That’s all that’s needed – we don’t need further wars.
Journalists and other citizens do not always fare well in war-time.
After googling ‘journalists killed 2014’ I was relieved at what seemed to be a low number to me of 61. But still, not an easy job. The word journalist connotes objectivity, at least it is meant to, though at times this seems laughable. But satirists are not quite journalists, nor are they mere propagandists. They report, if they are any good at all, on visceral ideology, and whether they are aware of it or not (the best ones are) they are ideologues of a sort. If the cartoonists at CH were or were not your sort of ideologue then so be it, whether they were French bigots or leftist situationists, they knew what kind of hornet’s nest they were fooling with- not that they wanted to die, who does? But they took their stance and are now martyred for it.
It’s not how things are supposed to go in a liberal democracy but we’re all grown up living in a bigger world than that now.