Je suis encore Charlie

It was a “you’ll remember where you were when you heard the news” moment.

I remember where I was when I heard the news about:

  • Bobby Kennedy being assassinated
  • Princess Marina dying (admittedly a bit of a niche one, that)
  • Lord Mountbatten being killed
  • John Lennon being shot
  • Princess Diana dying
  • The planes flying into the twin towers

And now I add to that list:

  • Five cartoonists, the editor, three other staff, two policemen and a visitor are killed at or around a French satirical newspaper

“It’s like Private Eye being attacked” – was my first thought on hearing the news.

Cartoonists. Absolutely crazy. You couldn’t make it up. How could people be so dense, how could they have brains with a texture so like porcine agricultural waste products, as to kill cartoonists?

But we shouldn’t single out the cartoonists. All twelve people killed were somehow working to prepare, or supporting those who were preparing, Charlie Hebdo. The exception was Ahmed Merabet, the local bobby who answered the call to go along to the incident.

To get things in perspective, Mark Steel, in a wonderful article, reminds us that crazy people go on killing sprees all the time. In the USA it is a regular occurrence.

But there was something different about this atrocity. There is a deep connection with the right of free speech, of course. It should also, I hope, remind us of our ties with the French. It reminds me of my own abiding francophilia, which was born out of being taught French by une française and being thoroughly enchanted by Albert Camus’ “La Peste”.

Despite some inexactitudes (perhaps born out of its instant conception via Twitter) I like the “Je suis Charlie” motto. Firstly, obviously, it is in French. It is a nice hat-doff to les françaises to occasionally talk their language, however briefly, particularly at this time of their national crisis. It’s a gorgeous, elegant language.

Secondly, it succinctly expresses solidarity with the French and those who embrace free speech.

The motto has taken a bit of a knock. From the summaries I have read, (see also here and here) Charlie Hebdo was certainly a satirical publication. For satire to be effective, it has to be “biting”. That is the whole point. Am I Charlie to the extent that I would personally publish depictions of religious figures? No. Am I Charlie to the extent that I am comfortable with depictions of religious figures? No. (But satire should never be comfortable.) But I am Charlie to the extent that I defend the right of people to publish satire that may offend, as long as it is within the law. (And Charlie Hebdo was taken to court by 2006 by two Muslim organisations for depictions, but the case was dismissed by the courts in 2007.)

There may be some of the Charlie Hebdo output which is lost in translation, both linguistically and culturally. Imagine a non-British person seeing a clip of Alf Garnett in full flow on “Till death us do part“. They might well conclude that it was a racist show (indeed, many British people have), which, of course, it wasn’t. It was a masterful piece of satire by Johnny Speight. Well, that is what it is like, I suspect, for non-French people to dip into “Charlie Hebdo” and make judgments along the lines of finding the whole shebang “racist”. It is faintly absurd.

(It is also worth bearing in mind that Charlie Hebdo had a weekly circulation of 30,000 – about the same as Golf World in this country. In comparison, our Private Eye has a fortnightly circulation of 228,000. Charlie Hebdo was no Sun.)

I would, however, state one caveat in the area of free speech. As usual there is a great deal of sense emanating from the small, but perfectly formed, Suffolk village of Creeting St Peter. This country is founded on a tradition of free speech, but also tolerance, respect and, yes, politeness. We should treat free speech with respect. We shouldn’t poke people in the eye with it, just because we can. We shouldn’t indulge in gratuitous offence-giving. (And good satire is not normally gratuitous – there is a point to it, as there clearly was with some of the more infamous Charlie Hebdo cartoons).

However, we do have relatively sophisticated laws in this regard. As long as publications keep within the law, as Charlie Hebdo did (albeit French law – of which I have no knowledge – in their case), then I think it is OK to be them when twelve people are mown down at, or around, their offices.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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14 Comments

  • Nigel Cheeseman 11th Jan '15 - 1:31pm

    I like your analogy with ‘Till Death Us Do Part’.

  • stuart moran 11th Jan '15 - 1:50pm

    good article Paul Walter

    I may not absolutely agree with every point you made within it but it got pretty near where I am thinking – the world is a complex place. I agree it is also refreshing to see something in that beautiful language

    ‘Je suis Charlie’ means something to me that should not be boiled down to be too literal and thus support everything done or said by the paper

  • “But there was something different about this atrocity. There is a deep connection with the right of free speech, of course.”

    I guess that explains why the whole world is still talking about Charlie Hebdo, while the killing of 19 people by a 10-year old girl suicide bomber in a Nigerian market yeterday has caused barely a ripple in the public consciousness. In fact, when I got up this morning and saw no mention of it on the BBC news at all, I genuinely wondered if I had dreamt reading about it late last night.

    I can fully understand why this particular atrocity has attracted the attention it has, and I appreciate that LDV is not a news organ and cannot cover all atrocities everywhere. But I have to say – as this troubled me at the time – that I was surprised to see no mention whatsoever on LDV (not even in the comments pages I think) of the massacre of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar last month.

    As I say, I can appreciate the reasons why some things attract more attention than others. But were four cartoonists really this much more important than 19 Nigerian shoppers or 132 Pakistani children? I know these things are difficult.

  • Jayne Mansfield 11th Jan '15 - 1:54pm

    @ Nigel Cheeseman.
    Me too. I think it is very apt.

  • Ruth Bright 11th Jan '15 - 3:56pm

    Stuart – interesting points about priorities. As someone with no interest in football it seems to me that football is always crammed full of commemorations, sentimentality, benefit matches etc but the death of 20 Nigerians in a bombing during the World Cup (they were innocently watching a match on a public screen with their families and friends) was left almost unmarked.

    Paul Walter a stylish article – Alf Garnett and Princess Marina in one place. Surely a first!

  • Peter Hayes 11th Jan '15 - 7:50pm

    It is not so long ago that Viz was taken to court for blasphemy, that law has now gone but perhaps the right to go as far as Charlie goes is to far. How many Christians would accept a cartoon of anal sex between God the father, the son and the Holy Ghost. In America it could result in a shooting but here, and I am not religious, it perhaps goes a bit too far.

  • Stuart,
    Really interesting point. There have been something like 20,000 terror attacks by Islamic Militant groups since 9/11. I think Charlie Hebdo has become a focal point because it happened in Europe and was a direct attack on free speech. It as given people an opportunity to discuss things in a more open way and examine not just an attack by terrorist, but also to look at how we’ve allowed our freedoms to be trampled on under the banner of security concerns. What we are increasingly learning is that the security services can monitor and arrest and question, but in truth can do very little to stop this kind of attack. You can stop bomb plots and search for funding. However you can’t really stop cold blooded murder because no crime exists until the attack starts.

  • Peter Hayes

    “How many Christians would accept a cartoon of anal sex between God the father, the son and the Holy Ghost. […] it perhaps goes a bit too far.”

    Of course it would go too far, but that should not mean it should be banned! How can so many people who are members of the Lib Dems not yuderstand this simple concept.

    Also are you so sure it would result in shootings in the US?

  • Tsar Nicolas 13th Jan '15 - 4:37am

    One incident that Paul left off the list was the murder of Jill Dando – I remember how I heard very clearly, and I can still feel the sense of shock that went through me.

    But the point of my post is to convey this little tidbit – George H.W. Bush has always claimed that he did not know what he was doing or where eh was when he heard that JFK was assassinated. Th evidence though, puts him somewhere in . . . Dallas.

    I am grateful to investigative reporter Russ Baker (whowhatwhy.com) for this quite startling piece of information. You can find much more of the real history of the United States (and therefore the world) during the past fifty years by reading his book ‘Family of Secrets.’

  • Psi : “but that should not mean it should be banned” – things are banned every day which are not in the least harmful, rude or offensive, because they upset the current establishment

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