On the Charlie Hebdo Killings
I cannot conceive of any circumstances under which I would either die or kill for my faith. That’s because I don’t have one – at least one based on any kind of religious, supernatural belief. However, I can easily conceive of circumstances under which I might die or kill for my right to write my mind’s innermost, darkest thoughts, for those thoughts, regardless of whether they give offense, are who I am, which I could no more deny than physically amputate. As a writer, the stiff winds of anti-intellectualism borne of ideology and a fundamentalist belief in one’s cause or faith are enough to give pause. When did we jump the shark in our public discourse that the first recourse against being offended by a differing viewpoint is to pick up a rifle, knife or bomb and kill – or, less fatally, to censor – the messenger? Intellectually, it feels as if we have retreated further into the Dark Ages again after the unthinkable killing of ten staff members and two police of the French satirical cartoon magazine Charlie Hebdo during an editorial meeting. To say that these people in any way asked for this to happen by “poking the Islamic bear” evokes the same ludicrous argument making the rounds in our culture lately that rape victims ask for their attack by wearing provocative clothing. As Jonathan Chait wrote, “One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.”
It is equally ludicrous to call this a religious attack, or violent defense of Islam. Senator Lindsey Graham went so far as to declare in a statement following the attacks that “We’re in a religious war.” (Good luck raising an army for that one, buddy. I damn sure won’t be signing up.) The value religion has in our culture is that it directs its faithful’s attention to that which transcends humanity’s base and worldly desires. As soon as you pull a trigger, use a blade to cut off the head of another human being, or set off a bomb, you have consigned yourself to the dust into which we all inevitably return. At that point, you’re merely using religion as a cloak around an abhorrent action that any civilized society, even Muslim, would condemn. What does it say about your deity anyway that he would need us lowly humans to defend him or his honor? You may believe with all your heart that your action will trigger (forgive the pun) transcendent action down the road (such as society, upon being attacked, suddenly converting themselves to Islam – like that’s going to happen – or receiving your sweet reward of 72 virgins in the by and by), but that’s your delusion, and if you happen to survive your action and get caught, then societal justice will be quick to disabuse you of that notion.
I understand how these attacks prompt us to cry out to our respective deities for explanation and justice, because their very randomness reminds us of how helpless we are sometimes, how in today’s world there is no “blessed assurance” of anyhing. There’s little to protect us from the random forces of life in general, let alone the flagrant actions of a band of rogue extremists, unless we are willing to live drastically different and constrained lifestyles, in which case we’d no longer be free but prisoners of our own making. Lest we forget, the Charlie Hebdo attackers were known to French authorities for some time, and yet that wasn’t sufficient to prevent this incident from happening. Though it’s far from popular to say so, we also must not forget that there’s a segment of the world population, including those involved in these attacks, who cry out for explanation and justice as well over the random killing of their women and children with drones, wrongful imprisonment and torture of their fellow citizens for a decade or more for crimes they have never been charged with, and many other grievances that never make it into our news coverage. It’s a shame that these reminders of life’s fragility don’t cause the faithful to cling ever more tightly to their faith for help to transcend those things in life that are unfair and incomprehensible, for violence is never the answer. Instead, we get leaders like Senator Graham cranking up the Crusades again by inciting holy war. The world and our animal, material, eye-for-an-eye natures exert a stronger pull, and the cycle of violence and neverending war on terror and religion continues.
A closer examination of what’s driving these terrorist attacks shows them as more the exploitation of the disenfranchised. Those in positions of power and authority – imams and clerics, for instance – use their power on the one hand to whip up their faithful into enough of a frenzy over some offense that they would be willing to kill or sacrifice their own lives, or on the other hand to punish them if they ever step out of line or violate any of their religion’s tenets. In the case of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the orders apparently came from Yemeni imam (and former American) Anwar al-Awlaki, and he trained two reportedly religiously illiterate men to carry out the deed. Is this that much different than the rich and powerful in our own country using the levers of power both to exploit and stifle the voices of the poor and powerless? The world is experiencing a lot of unrest right now, and those in power are astute in their use of fear and paranoia, which are by-products of economic and political unrest, to convince the ignorant that it’s “those people,” the ones different than us based on their religion or color of skin or country of origin, who are to blame for their misfortune. Anyone who is deemed “other,” is the enemy and must be removed or destroyed. Thus, the powerful use the disenfranchised to protect and preserve THEIR positions while offering little more than fairy tale endings (72 virgins, milk and honey, the long-dead American Dream) in return for their allegiance. Before being recruited by Al Qaeda to carry out the Charlie Hebdo murders, their killers could give two shits about whether Muhammad was being cartoonized and satirized. Now they’re dead, having gone out in a blaze of bullets and cries of “Allahu Akbar.” I wonder how they’re enjoying their 72 virgins.
Writers and artists have a responsibility to speak truth to power, even if their words and images provoke someone to do them harm. One thing an artist cannot control, however, is the proportion of response to their work, and so it is society’s responsibility to protect the artist from such repercussions if they cross the legal line into violence or murder. As a society, we, too, need to understand that our targets are not these poor religiously illiterate souls who are cynically sacrificed for someone else’s misguided cause. The brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo received their just punishment, as did al-Awlaki (killed by drone strike in 2011), but we can’t say the same about the other Al Qaeda leaders still plotting and ordering other attacks, can we? Nor can we ignore the exploitation or suppression of the disenfranchised on our own soil. Our own politicians foment this us vs. them dynamic in government by managing to convince the disenfranchised and voiceless to vote against their best interests out of fear of the other, and then in the next breath pass legislation that undercuts the social safety net that their voters depend on to get by. Any attempt to speak out against these policies, such as the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, Moral Monday protests in here in NC and the marches in Ferguson and NYC over the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions, is met with the Powers That Be forcibly shutting down their right to assemble, manipulating the media to cast the protestors as lazy no-gooders and rabble rousers looking to stir up trouble, demonizing those who use welfare as “takers,” and characterizing our political discourse in terms of every man for himself (the politics of “I’ve got mine, screw you.”)
In my former life as executive director of Champions of Education, an education advocacy organization here in Hickory, I experienced firsthand such a retributive response. Though it was admittedly a smack down far milder than what the Charlie Hebdo artists received, it was enough to give me a taste of what would happen if I pushed the envelope further. And of course, this was the point. In 2011, I had arranged a program at one of our quarterly breakfast meetings to address the impact of the state’s draconian budget cuts to education on our county’s three school systems. I began the meeting by quoting from Governor Beverly Purdue’s statement against the General Assembly’s budget that had just passed. Well, that in itself was beyond the pale to one of our local mayors, a staunch conservative, who wrote to me later about how partisan it was for me to do this (she was the elected governor of our state, for crying out loud!). Next on the agenda was a jointly coordinated presentation by our three superintendents about the budget’s impact on our county and each of their systems. Though I did not give or have anything to do with their presentations, this later prompted outraged calls from a county commissioner and a heavyweight political figure in our community – not to me, mind you, because shit rolls downhill, but to two members of my board. The point of these calls was to get these board members to use their power to hire and fire to keep me in line. And trust me, the message came through loud and clear, as I remained gun-shy and avoided anything with a taint of controversy from then on. Thus, my creating this blog is a delayed attempt at recourse for this inappropriate use of power, and I know how fortunate I am to live in a society where I have that right and freedom.
Unfortunately, this kind of assertive response of those in power against those without is becoming so commonplace that it becomes difficult from a philosophical and theoretical perspective to see the difference between these and the terrorist acts they work so hard to prevent. We all know about the broad and sweeping powers granted to law enforcement to spy on US citizens by President Bush immediately after 9-11. These have not stopped and have in many ways increased under President Obama. A recent article in The Intercept by Glenn Greenwald reported on the growing practice of law enforcement to patrol social media sites for prosecutable language in violation of our constitutional rights to free speech. Whatever happened to old fashioned dialogue and vibrant exchange of ideas? Nowadays, if you piss somebody off by what you said, wrote or drew, you get whacked, literally and figuratively.
Those who rail against our so-called PC culture fail to understand that it’s not at all about policing and punishing the things people say. It’s about allowing new, even controversial or provocative, ideas into the public discourse. Globalization and information technology exposes us to new ideas, cultures, beliefs and scientific discoveries that we would not otherwise have known existed. These can sometimes make us uncomfortable, and we can choose to crawl into a cave to hide ourselves from them, but we can’t pretend they don’t exist, and we can’t make them go away, no matter how many bombs we drop or heads we lop off. The best we can do is to seek to understand before being understood. That’s all PC is. It’s acknowledging that another’s life, including their thoughts and beliefs, has value and meaning, even if we find it alien or difficult to comprehend. Once we acknowledge that basic fact, it is no longer acceptable to demonize or belittle them with words and images that depict them as “other.” This is wisdom as old, if not older, than Muhammad and Jesus and all the other prophets in whose name we kill, but sadly we’re no closer to understanding or practicing this than we were 2,000 years ago.
There’s no question, as the Charlie Hebdo killings prove, that words and images have power, if for no other reason than they are free and available to the powerful and powerless alike to use. Unfortunately, we now live in a world where desperate times require desperate measures, where the first recourse against some slight is to draw your weapons rather than engage in dialogue. As a testament to the indomitable human spirit, the disenfranchised today risk being shut out and denied a voice by society, forced into poverty or imprisoned or killed without explanation or recourse in order to have their say. No one today, with all the vehicles of communication and sources of information at our disposal, should feel afraid to think or say anything without fearing for their life or livelihood, and yet that’s where we are. Unfortunately, we have on the one hand the rich and powerful, from politicians to imams, willing to go to any lengths to protect their wealth and power and on the other a growing segment of disenfranchised people willing to go to any lengths to take it from them. Welcome to the Wild West of the 21st century, folks!
Charlie Hebdo understands their role in this attack only too well, for they have paid the ultimate price – and, based on their plans to depict a tearful Muhammad holding a sign that reads “Je Suis Charlie” on their first post-shooting issue, it’s one they’d gladly pay again. One could even argue – and many have, the Catholic League’s Bob Donohue being the most asinine example – that they brought this on themselves, as they continued to produce the inflammatory cartoons after previous threats, fire bombings and the hiring of bodyguards. But they still had every right to do what they did, and there is a place in society for those who push the envelope of decency, taste and sacrilege (please tell me, who defines these?). Once someone resorts to violence against art or language, we’ve lost the chance to come together in order to better understand each other, to seek common cause and to build lives and societies that honor and respect the lives of all. Until we reach the point (I’m not holding my breath) that we can dialogue instead of kill over cartoons, these things will continue to happen. Meanwhile, Charlie Hebdo has sold out several million copies of its next issue. Nearly 4 million souls marched in France in solidarity of the victims. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State will no doubt choose another target. Such is the sad, pedantic and irrepressible nature of humans sharing space on this planet.