Thursday, 8 January 2015

kill us, we deserve it

more than 24 hours after the atrocity at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, maybe some thoughtful remarks are possible. There have of course been calls for the return of the death penalty here in France. Leaving those to one side, and noting that the perpetrators of the murders (12 people dead, two of whom incidentally are Muslim, just saying) are still at large at the time of writing (it has been reported that they held up a petrol station at gunpoint this afternoon), what should we think about all this, and what should we learn?

At least one part of the BBC (its "security correspondent" Frank Gardner) was inclined to shill for the murderers, as was the Financial Times. Other British media have had a little more sense, but not much. None of them has published any of the cartoons that were the "provocation" for the murders of the 12 people, four of them cartoonists, yesterday. Correction, the Independent allegedly has, but when I try to access it on line I get the message "You've been hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army, and this picture:
If any Arabic-speaking readers can make out script that small, perhaps they can tell me what the inscription says. Anyway, I should have thought a commitment to press freedom and freedom of expression would have encouraged the print media to reproduce at least some of the cartoons, in solidarity. Thousands of individuals have posted them on line, so why can't big, powerful corporations do so? It has been suggested to me that they have not published because they have management decisions to make, and responsibility to their staff and their shareholders, and so on, blah blah blah. That I can understand, although it is cowardly and wrong. Dan Hodges tweeted yesterday that his first thought had been to publish a Charlie Hebdo cartoon, in solidarity, but then he stopped, because he was scared. We all were. But we did it anyway. They can't kill us all, as a friend messaged yesterday.

David Aaronovitch in The Times today (£) writes powerfully about the cowardice of Western media in not publishing what Charlie Hebdo published. Nor will they publish images of Muhammad, wherever they might originate. Don't want to upset people, you see. Which left Charlie Hebdo isolated, out of the mainstream, and looking eccentric. And then they got killed. Some of them I think were half expecting this to happen. There was a police guard present, but he was killed first. Obviously. He was Muslim, as it happens. It is arguable that Charlie Hebdo were targeted because it was only them, at least in France. And we know what happened in Denmark a few years ago. And we know that mainstream publishers would not publish The Satanic Verses today, for fear of murderous reprisals. Everyone who failed to condemn the fatwa against Salman Rushdie all those years ago, everyone who said "We are all Hezbollah now", all the Western boys and girls who marched under Saddam Hussein's flag in European cities in 2003, and especially the cowardly and pusillanimous Big Media, are complicit in what is happening in Europe today. Jewish people who can are leaving France, for Israel and elsewhere. Yesterday's murderous atrocity did not target Jews - of the 12 killed two were Muslim and one was Jewish - it targeted a value system.

The value system you live by may be different from the one I try to live by. But whatever it is, it is not threatened by mockery, or by cartoons, or by any media which lampoon it. Not. At. All.

There are still those who contend that it is wrong to offend people. They are wrong. Sometimes they refer to "gratuitous" offence, as if giving offence for money or for an ulterior motive were somehow better, or not so bad. No law or convention gives blanket protection to offensive language, written or spoken. But the freedom to publish, and to express, must remain. And each of us, as individuals, has a responsibility there, whether we make public utterances (and most of us do, on line or otherwise) or not. The freedom to publish inoffensive material, and nothing else, is no freedom at all.

Twelve people are dead in Paris. Millions have been killed in the Middle East in recent years. The Charlie Hebdo killings deserve special mention, not because their lives and their deaths matter more than those of people in Syria or anywhere else, but because this was a massacre of a group of people who were all in the same room yesterday because they had the common objective of - taking the piss. Because of what they chose to write, and draw, and publish. In a country, and a continent, which espouses freedom of expression, and in which it is not the State that decides what may and may not be published.

I stood in the big square in Strasbourg yesterday in the early evening damp and chill. There were at least 2,000 people there. It occurred to me that if they really wanted to "kill us all" they could have turned up in the great squares of the cities of France, and killed quite a lot of us. Well, let them try.  Perhaps they are not quite numerous or well organised enough - yet. One thing I do know is that if we do nothing, if we keep our heads down and try not to offend anyone, that will not save us.

I've got nothing to say about Islam. I am a Christian, and I do my best to live a good life. Like most human people, I fail, most of the time. What I write, and what I say, may at times be silly, or incoherent, or plain wrong. But how many more have to die to maintain my right to write and say it?

Front National leader Marine Le Pen was on TV this morning. She said France was at war. She wants a referendum on return of the death penalty (please, no.) She is the only French political leader I have heard say that freedom of expression applies to offensive material, or to material with which one profoundly disagrees, or it is meaningless. What have we come to when it is the leader of that party that finds an opportunity to take the moral high ground? I only ask.

the last picture tweeted by Charlie Hebdo before the massacre
Maybe I'm over-complicating all this. If you don't like what you read, don't buy that magazine, don't read that blog, don't follow that Twitter feed. Don't, anyway, storm onto that author's premises and kill everyone there. And if you do, you will not be deemed to have been "provoked" by "Western policy" or any such tosh. You will be hunted down and captured. You will also, in France, receive due process. Something your victims did not have before you slaughtered them.

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