I surfaced after a week absence due to a flu bug to find a terrible thing occurred in Paris last week. It began with a murderous attack by radicals that left a policeman and 11 people dead at a French satirical newspaper known as Charlie Hebdo. It ended after a massive manhunt, a hostage-taking and the death of two gunman. Meanwhile, a sympathetic radical conducted a second murderous attack and hostage taking at a Jewish kosher supermarket. Altogether, 20 people died including three Islamic perpetrators and another 21 individuals were injured.
The result was a massive outpouring of support for the victims and freedom of speech as Parisians conducted vigils in the streets and began wearing shirts and carrying emblems that stated, “Je suis Charlie” which translates to “I am Charlie.” The surviving staff of the weekly newspaper vowed to continue production with the profits from this week’s newspaper sales going to the families of the victims. Therefore, the newspaper’s circulation of 60,000 has been bumped up to a million this week.
The newspaper was hit with a lawsuit in 2006 after publishing cartoons of Muhammad. I am not familiar with the small French rag, but many people of the Islamic faith are well aware of the publication since it routinely offended them with its cartoons and graphic depictions of the prophet Muhammad (some of which apparently depicted him naked or in a pornographic position). Newspaper staff at Charlie Hebdo – and cartoonists in particular – seemed bent on denouncing all religion, and Islam in particular. Their ongoing diligence in that area was noticed and caused offended residents to protest in the streets, but it was a moot point as the newspaper had freedom of speech on its side.
Hugh Schofield of the BBC News described the newspaper this way. “Charlie Hebdo is part of a venerable tradition in French journalism going back to the scandal sheets that denounced Marie-Antoinette in the run-up to the French Revolution. The tradition combines left-wing radicalism with a provocative scurrility that often borders on the obscene. Its decision to mock the Prophet Muhammad in 2011 was entirely consistent with its historic raison d’etre. The paper has never sold in enormous numbers – and for 10 years from 1981, it ceased publication for lack of resources. But with its garish front-page cartoons and incendiary headlines, it is an unmissable staple of newspaper kiosks and railway station booksellers.”
That unmissable and provocative newspaper that bordered on obscene finally caused enough personal irritation that someone fire-bombed its office in 2011. However, Charlie Hebdo did not deviate from its mandate of offending as many people as possible. With democracy and the right to free speech on its side, the staff pressed forward with their satirical cartoons and the attitude of “full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes.” It is unfortunate, but on Jan. 7, 2015 the torpedoes finally blew up and innocent people who were not in the media war died in the carnage.
Make no mistake – the attack on the newspaper office was a heinous act, but I believe it was first and foremost an act of revenge in the minds of the perpetrators – not an act of terror. Many of the cartoons and images that the staff of Charlie Hebdo considered free to regularly publish were actually instruments of offence and pain to people of the Islamic faith, some of whom do not accept insults to their religion and God as something to be forever tolerated. What we saw occur in Paris was intolerant individuals lash back at people and a newspaper they considered to be intolerant of their Godly beliefs.
It is a sad fact that freedom of speech can be used as the rationale for production and distribution of everything from hate material to pornographic images. It has been going on for decades and only the most offensive material is challenged since people in the western world have the right to self expression and any censorship of the media is generally rigorously opposed since it infringes on a person’s democratic rights.
The long and short of the matter is we all need to respect and be tolerant of other’s views and beliefs. It does not seem like Charlie Hebdo was either respectful or tolerant, and was taken to task in a most brutal fashion.
In my opinion, the sad fact that some newspapers are choosing to reprint the same cartoons that ignited the Paris powder keg is evidence that freedom of the press is perpetuating the problem of intolerance. In Germany, a newspaper that published the cartoons was apparently fire-bombed and suffered damage to its archive. Furthermore, additional problems underlying the murderous rampage at Charlie Hebdo such as marginalization are not being addressed by governments.
Personally, I do not see much difference between Charlie Hebdo and the actions of a bully – especially a cyber bully – who uses their technology or position to routinely belittle or satirically chastise people with a different lifestyle or viewpoint. Freedom of speech or not, the staff paid a price for their inconsiderate actions last week. On the other hand, I do not condone the barbaric actions of the individuals who objected to the content of the French newspaper and shot up the employees. The gunmen definitely got what they deserved in the end.
The whole situation can be summed up in the old adage that two wrongs don’t make a right, and for me that means, “Je ne suis pas Charlie.”