Editorial: Je Suis Desolé

Editorial: Je Suis Desolé

On the 7th of January 2015, three armed gunmen shouting Islamist slogans stormed the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in central Paris and gunned down twelve members of staff in apparent retaliation to a series of cartoons which ridiculed fundamentalists.

The attack strikes at the heart of our concept of freedom of speech, a pillar of Western civilisation which many would argue is the most important aspect of a free and open democracy. However sinister and horrific these cold blooded murders were, as I scrolled through endless #JeSuisCharlie hash tags and images on social media, watching the enormous crowds of people turning out in admirable solidarity, I was overcome with a worrying guilt as I realised I was struggling to fully empathise with Charlie Hebdo’s staff. Amid widespread condemnation of the brutal murders and an international outpouring of solidarity and mourning, I was personally struck by a seemingly innocuous comment from Hebdo’s editor-in-chief Gerard Biard, who said: “I don’t understand how people can attack a newspaper with heavy weapons. A newspaper is not a weapon of war.”

Whether said in the heat of the moment, or a comment which Biard will stand by, it raised several questions which, for me, cut to the very core of this tragedy and sparked an inner dialogue worthy of discussion and deep thought. Primarily, I refute the claim that a newspaper is not a weapon of war. Admittedly, its primary function is certainly not to be one, and whether this was a throwaway remark is debatable, but I would fully assert that a newspaper or any other media outlet can most definitely be a weapon of war, and probably one of the more powerful ones. To claim otherwise seems incredibly naïve and misleading, especially for a seasoned journalist.

In this instance and many others in recent memory, we’ve seen the devastating power of free speech in full force; literature, art, film and music crossing boundaries and breaking barriers that violence and intimidation can never dream of assailing. For a stark example, just remind yourself that Seth Rogen nearly succeeded in sparking hostilities between the US and North Korea by making a farcical, toilet-humour-driven comedy film that undermined the country’s dictator Kim Jong Un. To use a tired cliché, the pen is indeed mightier than the sword, and it’s been proven time and time again. You might disagree, but for me, that reinforces the restraint and wisdom with which we should use that power. That’s not to suggest we should not express our views, but must we do it in a hostile way to be heard? There is no doubt in my mind that religious fundamentalism is one of the major evils of our time, but I will not shout and jab my finger to be heard – aggression begets aggression.

Time and time again over the past 24 hours I have returned in my mind’s eye to the image of an angry teenage boy striking a wasp’s nest with a stick. Eventually, the nest will give way, the wasps will swarm out, and that boy will get stung. Freedom of expression has power, and in my mind I cannot shake the feeling that Charlie Hebdo’s journalists and cartoonists abused that power – they used it to attack, to deliberately offend, to provoke and rile. Are they the actions we should be taking to solve the differences and challenges that we face as an out of control species clamouring for space on a shrinking landmass? It feels to me rather that we should be seeking to understand, to inform, to educate, to build bridges with fundamentalists, to strike at the root causes of their obviously misinformed ideology. Relentlessly attacking fundamentalists turns them into the demons we fear; they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. What’s more, we run the risk of continually demonising Islam and Muslims as a whole and creating a deepening mistrust in Western society. How many innocent and blameless Muslims did the magazine unintentionally offend with their depiction of the Prophet? In my opinion, Charlie Hebdo and their core message are in the regrettable position of having the right and honourable ideals, but the wrong implementation.

In many ways, the journalists and artists who so tragically and regrettably died for their cause yesterday got their wish – they have provoked major debate and discussion, shone a light on the darkness they sought to expose. They knew the consequences of their actions and were prepared to fight, in essence, and die for their beliefs – this was an intellectual war based on values and ideals fought with wit, sarcasm and the flourish of pen and ink. Unfortunately for Charlie Hebdo, fundamentalists tend to fight back not with reasoned intellect but with AK47’s.

The message I am trying to convey is one of tolerance, compassion and understanding – something which I feel is missing from the heart of Charlie Hebdo’s message. The threat of small fundamentalist cells like the one that committed this atrocity is not something we can destroy by cutting off the head, neither with swords nor with words.

The attack is a tragedy, the loss of life appalling. Nobody deserves to die for expressing their opinion. I feel daily sorrow as I scour the headlines and see humanity beating itself to its knees with each unfolding catastrophe. Until we change persistent small-minded ideas of nationalism, religious fundamentalism, xenophobia and racism and fully embrace the notion of a global society, the future of humanity hangs in the balance. This will not happen overnight – we are at a major pivotal point in the future of our species on this planet, and for the sake of future generations we must make the right choices.

Throughout it all, I can’t stop thinking about the role that the internet plays in the way that inflammatory material like this is disseminated in the modern age. In an instant, a satirical cartoon spreads globally with unknown repercussions. With the relatively recent introduction of this technology, the majority of the world has not had time to adjust, to catch up. The cultural gaps and differences between us may seem smaller as the world shrinks thanks to our increasing connectivity and capacity for high speed international travel, but in reality many of these gaps are still vast gulfs. Are we moving at a pace that’s simply too fast for ingrained human behaviour and cultural traditions to accept?

My heart aches when I think of the injustice of this attack, but after much soul searching I find that I simply cannot condone the manner in which Charlie Hebdo attempt to spread their message of liberalism and free speech. My deepest sympathy reaches out to the families of those who lost their lives and I remain defiantly in support of freedom of speech, but I am not Charlie. I am just sorry.

– Jamie Otsa

Share this!