In the coming weeks and months, what will the words ‘Charlie Hedbo’ come to represent? What thoughts will they summon? They will—or should—make anyone into whose mind they arise think of the brave few writers and cartoonists who were willing to risk their lives stress testing the freedoms we all so complacently hold, and hold dear.
The ‘Je Suis Charlie’ slogan is, in and of itself, a poignant and appropriate way to pay them tribute. But the cartoons now inextricably attached to the words ‘Charlie Hebdo’ were noticeably absent from yesterday’s memes and vigils, as they were—predictably, inevitably, dispiritingly—from today’s national newspapers, precisely when it mattered. What is the point in publishing a plethora of admittedly powerful cartoons not one of which exercises the kind of freedoms yesterday’s attackers would deny—are denying—us?
Most news outlets and spokespeople still cannot bring themselves to discuss the attacks without implying that the printing of certain cartoons is an insanitary act. The BBC News website told us that the magazine had “courted controversy in the past”. The first tweet on the subject from HuffPost UK Political Director Mehdi Hasan began “I’m no fan of Charlie Hebdo, but this is a sickening, terrifying, unjustifiable attack on journalists.” On Channel 4 News, Matt Frei’s primary line of questioning to L’express Editor Christian Makarian asked whether Charlie Hebdo had “overstepped the line”.
And how many articles will be written in the coming days glibly insisting that we must defend freedom of expression, authored by people who in 2006 thought that to reprint the Mohammed cartoons published in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten would be needlessly provocative?
No major news outlet in this country has yet reproduced those cartoons either. Charlie Hebdo did. Ils étaient Jyllands-Posten. But for years they were left to their defiance, their heads protruding above the trench, lonely targets on which enemy sights could be honed. What displays of solidarity we have now managed are too little, and they are very definitely too late.
Do we imagine that Kubrick’s Spartacus would have offered gratitude had he been secure on a cross, the Romans’ bloodlust temporarily sated, before his fellow enslaved had decided to commence any act of solidarity? Many of those now happy to appropriate Charlie Hebdo’s name might otherwise have spent today denouncing any writer or cartoonist insistent on treating all belief systems with equal derision as a provocateur, Islamophobe, or racist. Perhaps therein lies some iota of hope.
In response to the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989, Christopher Hitchens wrote: “It comes easily to the relaxed child of the Enlightenment to say that everything should be sayable; that every book should be available. Yet every generation or so, we are reminded that more than a vague permissiveness is at stake.”
We are now, alas, reminded more often than we would need. But we allow what lessons we might learn to dissipate with the smoke of Islamist guns. Between now and the next attack, we will assert our absolute freedom, but we will practise only vague permissiveness. The drawing and the printing will be left to a precious few.