Like every other right-thinking consumer of news today, I have been transfixed, horrified, by the murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Through the day I have impotently tweeted and retweeted in a futile attempt to make a meaningful contribution; to synthesize a response; to sum up the event, to condemn it, to punish it… anything to comfort myself, to test that my foundations are secure, and to explore on which fronts I am vulnerable to attack, and on which fronts I am willing to fight. I have shared the hashtags and tried to swell the indignant grief and rage in a non-inflammatory way. I have contemplated learning French so I can understand the satire. I have uncomprehendingly viewed the French webpage through which subscriptions to the magazine can be purchased. I very nearly took up a pen and tried to draw a cartoon.
But this evening, looking at footage of the impromptu gatherings across the continent by crowds bearing aloft pens and banners declaring ‘Je suis Charlie’, I feel only desolation. None of it really means anything. Only people who are prepared to put their heads above the parapet and defend the principle of free speech by doing it are entitled to say ‘Je suis Charlie’. Everyone else may admire Charlie, or respect Charlie, but they are not Charlie. Only the bravest of the brave can say that, and precious few of us are that brave. Tomorrow will show us more clearly who is prepared to stand up and be counted. Already the cowards are identifying themselves – among them the Daily Telegraph – and insulting the dead by censoring the images for which they died.*
I like to think of myself as a liberal, a tolerant liberal, and I revere the Golden Rule as the overarching natural law by which we all should live. Unfortunately I am also one of life’s shrinking violets, and will turn myself inside out to avoid giving offence. It is anathema to me to upset people. I can turn my back on someone, but I have perhaps only once in my life knowingly bitten my thumb at another. Tonight I feel wracked. To allow Charlie Hebdo’s precious trickle of satire to be cut off would be to betray the dead, but to keep it alive we have to continue deliberately to give offense. We have to give that unpleasant medicine, and by proper extension of the principle of free speech we have to be prepared to swallow it too.
It seems to me an awful dilemma. Should we upset the vast majority of good, peaceful, observant believers just to defend a principle? Does the principle need defending? I certainly have ideas in my head of ways to gratuitously offend believers of all stripes (though some are easier than others to offend), but I have never seriously contemplated turning them into reality. Today I wonder whether it is ignorance (not knowing), apathy (not caring) or cowardice (not daring) that keeps me silent. The murdered editor of Charlie Hebdo, Stephane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier, is reported to have said “I have no kids, no wife, no car… I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.” At the dinner table tonight I contemplated asking my loved ones whether they would support me if I chose to write a profane, blasphemous novel or poem, and whether they would be proud if I was murdered in defence of free speech, but in the end it was easier not to have that conversation. It is always going to be easier not to take the path of most resistance.
At this moment, as I publish this, the murderers remain free but many of the innocent are writhing in self-administered chains of political correctness. There is no justice we can call for that will adequately fit the crime; in trying to imagine a punishment equal to this modern medieval act we risk becoming monsters ourselves. The only pain deep and profound enough that I can possibly imagine is for the gunmen to witness the universal skewering and pitiful deflation of the gaseous bloated fantasy fiction they think they are defending. Satirists, cartoonists; it’s over to you.