Missing Comma: The Pen and the Sword
January 8, 2015
This morning, there are twelve people who are dead who should not be.
Nine journalists, a maintenance worker and two police officers were killed at the Paris headquarters of French satire newspaper Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday. Eleven more were injured; four are still in critical condition as of this writing.
Here is a list of the dead (source: The Guardian):
Stéphane Charbonnier, 47, cartoonist and publisher of Charlie Hebdo Jean “Cabu” Cabut, 76, Charlie Hebdo’s lead cartoonist Georges Wolinski, 80, Tunisian-born artist Bernard “Tignous” Verlhac, 57, a member of the group Cartoonists for Peace Bernard Maris — known as “Uncle Bernard”, 68, economist and Charlie Hebdo columnist Philippe Honoré, AKA Honoré, 73, Charlie Hebdo cartoonist since the paper’s founding in 1992 Michel Renaud, former journalist and political staffer, visiting Charlie Hebdo Mustapha Ourrad — Algerian copy editor at Charlie Hebdo Elsa Cayat — Charlie Hebdo analyst and columnist Frederic Boisseau — building maintenance worker Franck Brinsolaro — 49-year-old police officer appointed to head security for Charb and father of a one-year-old girl Ahmed Merabet — 42 and a French Muslim police officer and member of the 11th arrondissement brigade.
This morning you will read countless editorial boards repeating the line about freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Even my local state newspaper, The Oklahoman, has seen fit to take a break from its usual fare to publish an editorial cartoon in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo.
You will also read plenty of pieces of analysis from commentators of all stripes — worrying about the fuel this will add to the fire of French nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiments, incensed that journalism has been attacked, perhaps even adding some of that Islamophobic fuel themselves.
All of these columnists, from the left to the right, from the libertarian to the statist, will miss the point.
For all the talk of Charlie Hebdo’s anti-authoritarianism, commitment to freedom of expression, their courage and bravery in the face of Islamic fundamentalism, their “equal-opportunity” sartorial stance, what everyone seems to fail to recognize is that the attack on Charlie Hebdo had nothing to do with Islam, or indeed, religion to begin with.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo was as political as the statements Presidents Obama and Hollande made condemning the actions.
Vaneigem once wrote: while it flays us alive, power cleverly persuades us that we are flaying each other.
Charlie Hebdo sometimes mocked French heads of state, sometimes laughed at power, but it never openly challenged it. It was, by all accounts, a paper perfectly willing to engage in satire only so long as it could be allowed to blindly fire in any direction. To this end, it was a useful tool of power.
This should not be taken as a showing of disrespect for the dead. Any time a journalist, or an editorial cartoonist, or a photographer is killed, it is a deep, searing tragedy that fills my — and every fellow journalist’s — heart with rage and anguish. This time is no different. We are an industry that takes to heart “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Recognizing that an outlet — that Charlie Hebdo — serves the interests of power does not reduce the pain or lessen the loss. Even, in this instance, are the deaths of the police officers that were on the scene tragic. That does not change the universal purpose of the police: to serve power.
According to the Guardian, one of the primary suspects in the attack, 32-year-old Chérif Kouachi, was imprisoned in 2008 on terrorism charges for “helping funnel fighters to Iraq’s insurgency. He said at the time he was outraged at the torture of Iraqi inmates at the US prison at Abu Ghraib, near Baghdad.”
Eyewitnesses said one of the suspects proclaimed that they were from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. AQAP is based in Yemen, which has, in recent years, been subject to numerous American drone strikes, resulting in the death of numerous men, women and children. If Kouachi and his brother, Said, are in fact the gunmen, and did end up in AQAP, then it is certainly reasonable to surmise that American/coalition foreign policy up to and including drone strikes may have been a motivating factor for them. Of course, this is just an assumption. For now, the gunmen’s motivations are “whatever we write them to be.”
Yesterday Laurent Joffrin, the publishing director of Liberation, a French left-wing paper similar to the Guardian, remarked, “The terrorists have not attacked the ‘Islamophobic’ as the enemies of Muslims, those who constantly cry Islamist wolf. They targeted Charlie.”
And yet, today the reactionaries, the National Front and other right-wing nationalist groups, are making their bid for the highest political offices in France, using the Charlie Hebdo attack as their springboard. Did the paper speak for them?
The latest cover of Charlie Hebdo is a lampoon of French author Michel Houellebecq’s upcoming novel, which imagines a France run by a “Muslim Fraternity.” By all accounts, Charbonnier had been attempting to pull the paper back towards its left roots, especially after the 2011 firebombing of their offices. If this is true, then why would the National Front try to use the attack as an electoral boost?
Because the images that Charlie sometimes published, the ones that many label as Islamophobic and racist, have just as much of an audience as the images that attack the rich, powerful, bigoted. Because when something like this happens, it somehow justifies all the twisted logic of modern-day Nazis.
This attack took place in a country whose last several presidents have signed laws into being that actively ban aspects of Muslim life and freedom of expression. It took place in a Europe that has seen increasingly vitriolic anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment, and where, as recently as this month, the state has actually ordered pre-school and daycare teachers to spy on Muslim toddlers. It took place in a world that has been at war for the better part of two decades. Charlie’s work was not being done in a vacuum. It served, and continues to serve, power.
Originally published at c4ss.org.