The Null Device

Je suis vraiment Charlie? (Or, death ennobles)

The jihadist terrorist raid on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the murder of ten of its staff (including the editor and several renowned cartoonists and columnists), and the subsequent manhunt and police raids have been all over the news for the past few days; the horror that this could happen in the middle of Paris, in a satirical magazine already under police protection, was palpable. I'm not going to recap the details of the events; one can find comprehensive accounts in the press. This post is more about the reaction. (On the events of the day, suffice it to say that my condolences are with the families and loved ones of those who were murdered, and I condemn the criminals who perpetrated these acts; also, the best way to defeat terrorism is to refuse to be terrorised.)

The aftermath of the attacks drew a unified display of solidarity; all over the world—at Paris's Place de la République, at Trafalgar Square, in Martin Place in Sydney (the site of a recent siege by a clown with pretensions of being a jihadist terrorist), and elsewhere, people gathered with candles and signs. (There were some notable exceptions; the authorities in Tehran—totalitarian Islamists, albeit of a form deeply hostile to the Sunni jihadists involved in the attacks—clamped down on protests, presumably afraid that they might turn into an Iranian Spring.) One sign which soon emerged read Je Suis Charlie, a statement of solidarity with the victims. Soon, this sign had spread around the world; banners with it, in Charlie Hebdo's distinct headline typeface, in white on black, made it to T-shirts, banners on official buildings, the pages of newspapers of all stripes, and even Apple's French homepage.

One can understand the sentiment—you have attacked all of us, it says, but we will prevail, and you will not win—though those expressing it might not want to see it tested to its logical conclusion. Charlie Hebdo was not a cuddly, friendly or broadly loved publication; it was satire at its most scabrous, a tourettic court jester speaking truth to power and then dropping his pants and farting in its general direction. Its cartoonists and writers lampooned all targets without fear or favour, often calibrating their attacks to be deliberately, bluntly offensive; the offence, in their case, was part of the message, namely an assertion of the freedom of the secular, democratic Republic. The upshot of this is that a lot of the institutions now claiming to be Charlie look somewhat absurd; newspapers publishing Je Suis Charlie signs but carefully avoiding reprinting the offending cartoons, for example, are not particularly Charlie. Government buildings bearing banners identifying them with a viciously irreverent satirical publication look somewhat ridiculous. As for Apple's claim, one only has to look at its Disneyesque curation of the App Store to answer that question. Had Charlie Hebdo submitted an app containing the sorts of content that is their stock in trade, would Apple have ever approved it? Apple is not Charlie.

But death ennobles; tragic, spectacular death, even more so. In 1997, another death in Paris transformed a ditzy socialite into a saintly, virtuous figure, forever beyond mortal reproach; and now, the same phenomenon threatens to ossify Charlie Hebdo in a similar pristine marble. Though while its editor and cartoonists may be dead, Charlie Hebdo is not dead; the surviving staff have committed to producing an edition next week; money from a variety of sources (among them, Google and the Guardian) will help push the print run, normally around 60,000, to a million. The problem is, what comes after that: neither having been ennobled nor being universally loved is particularly healthy for a satirical publication (readers of a certain age might recall the genteel dotage of the English satirical magazine Punch as an example of this).

Elsewhere: Nick Cohen writes in The Spectator about the truths that ought to be self-evident; and on Twitter, one Dyab Abou Jajah points out an alternative figure to identify with:

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
Ahmed is Ahmed Merabet, the French police officer who was murdered by the jihadists.

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