“The destruction work is not as easy as people would think. You can’t knock down the statues by dynamite or shelling as both of them have been carved in a cliff. They are firmly attached to the mountain.” -Taliban Information Minister Qudratullah Jamal, on the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan
Je suis Charlie. I am Charlie.
This was the slogan that touched the world after the devastating attack on the office of satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo. As opposed to some other slogans that have been used after tragedies, “Je Suis Charlie” is a message of peace and unity. The slogan that came to my mind in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, however, was a line from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: “Those who don’t build must burn.”
The satirical cartoonist is a builder. We might be tempted to dismiss cartoonists and satirists as crude and unimportant in the grand scheme of things (after all, how poetic can you wax about a publication that once featured the Trinity fucking on the cover?), but in fact they are part of a grand tradition reaching back to the ancients and including such icons as Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, and Mark Twain. The satirist, like the poet, the painter, the singer, and so many others, is one of the many purveyors of human greatness, because he is doing something uniquely sublime: portraying society in all its ridiculousness, exactly as it is, and as it could be if we took the next logical step into insanity. It is one of the most subtle and enduring tools of social change. As Oscar Wilde said, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
Although, apparently, they just might kill you anyways…
The writers of Charlie Hebdo were doing something that might not be classified as noble, but was in its own way quite beautiful. And they were murdered by a group of cretins who know nothing of beauty or creation. Like their brethren, the Taliban cretins who destroyed the two beautiful Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, these men who could not build anything had no choice but to burn the artistic creations of their intellectual betters. Radical Islamic terrorists often dream of martyrdom, but the cartoonists they killed should instead become the martyrs of the western world. They did not seek out death – and their love of life and the material world is what makes them different from the Islamic suicide terrorists who hate all things worldly – but they died for a value that we in the West should hold as holy as suicidal terrorists hold paradise: the value of creation, and its necessary condition, free expression.
Je suis Charlie.
I am studying French this year. This made the latest massacre hit home for me somewhat harder than it would have been otherwise. We have a lot in common with France. We might eat freedom fries and they might eat baguettes, we might make fun of them for World War II and they might make fun of us for the Iraq war, but when push comes to shove we’re buddies. We’re both modern capitalist Western democracies that value individualism and civil liberties, and in the war between the West and radical Islam, we are united as one. Like England and the United States, France is one of the cradles of modern Western civilization. Values such as freedom of speech and of the press were developed, in large part, by French thinkers. This is a proud tradition. France must not back down from it. There are other talented Francophone cartoonists. Let them take up the mantle of Charb and his colleagues. The pen is mightier than the sword. Wield your pen like a sword…
Je suis Charlie.
The shooters, when they were done with the massacre, shouted that the Prophet Muhammad had been avenged. I would ask them why Muhammad – the last prophet of God in the eyes of Muslims – would need their protection. To quote from a source that will reveal the true depths of my nerdiness, “What does a god need with a starship?” What does a divine prophet need with a machine gun? Shouldn’t the word of God be the most powerful weapon there is? If Muhammad is the voice of God, then he is more powerful than you or I or Charlie Hebdo could possibly hope to be. Mockery should mean nothing to one so divine. The fact that so many radical Muslims feel so threatened by cartoons that they feel the need to take up arms against them shows nothing but the lack of security they have in their faith. True holy men would not react in such a way.
A certain image from Western culture – the image of Jesus enduring torture and never fighting back, because he knew he was divine and beyond his torturers’ power to hurt – is foreign to the terrorists’ mind. This image holds the same significance whether you are religious or nonreligious like myself. Truth can stand purely on its own merits. Truth does not have to resort to violence to defeat untruth. In a marketplace of ideas, bad ideas will fail and good ideas will propagate. This is why we can endure mockery of our cherished ideas, because we know that the strongest ideas are so self-evidently true as to survive any level of mockery. If the thought of someone else insulting your cherished beliefs offends you, then you should ask yourself the following question: “If I’m so certain I’m right and they’re wrong, what do I have to fear?”
Je suis Charlie. And so are you, but only if you commit yourself to Charlie’s mission.
You can be Charlie by publicizing and spreading the images that the terrorists were offended by. They are easily available on the internet. The terrorists wanted to make sure that no one sees them; you can help make sure that the entire world sees them. You can also be Charlie by standing up against censorship wherever you encounter it. Support the free speech rights of all groups, even the ones you find disgusting. Someone out there probably finds your views disgusting. And every once in a while, the unpopular minority opinion turns out to be the correct one. Being an heir to the Enlightenment means that you believe words and ideas are your strongest weapons, not guns and bombs. And you can be Charlie by participating in an act of creation, no matter how small or big. Create something to add to the beauty in the world. Help fill the void created in this world by the slain Charlie Hebdo writers. When faced with the forces of destruction, remember that, like the Buddhas of Bamiyan, you are firmly attached to a mountain. Those who don’t build must burn. Don’t burn. Build.
Jason Garshfield est Charlie. Et vous?