What the gunmen who carried out the Charlie Hebdo atrocity hated most was journalism’s insistence on ridiculing intolerance
The Guardian, 7 January 2015
I am feeling sick and shaky. I have been writing all day with tears running down my face. I don’t suppose I’m alone in reacting like this to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, which is an assault on journalists and free speech. Like many people, I am trying to react to both aspects of the attack, thinking about the victims – human beings capable of feeling pain and terror – and the principle of free speech, which has to be defended at all costs.
It does not feel right now as though the pen is mightier than the sword, but I have to believe that the ideas of the Enlightenment will defeat hooded men with guns.
I have sat in many editorial conferences, places where ideas are kicked around and jokes cracked, not always in good taste. That’s what journalists do, and the idea of being interrupted by terrorists with Kalashnikovs is impossible to compute. They are at two poles: the wry, endlessly sceptical but passionate commitment of the journalist and the thuggish certainty of the extremist.
In the country of Voltaire, those men with a terrifying absence of self-doubt murdered an editor and his cartoonists in cold blood. I can hardly bear to think of the footage of them advancing calmly on a wounded policeman and shooting him dead. I know there’s no evidence that Voltaire said what many people believe he said – about defending to the death those he disagreed with – but it feels as if it sums up the vast gulf between journalists and terrorists.
The staff of Charlie Hebdo insisted on their right to laugh at things they found absurd, including religious intolerance. I’ve written at least one column about the paper in the past, defending its right to republish the Danish cartoons showing the prophet Muhammad. I don’t think people – myself included – have a right not to be offended. And one of the things I hate most is the assumption that people who are angry are justified. It’s a measly sort of blaming-the-victim that says: if you do X, don’t be surprised if someone does Y. In this case, X involves drawing a cartoon while Y happens to be mass murder. Whatever happened to a sense of proportion?
The thing I’m angry about, apart from the murders of 12 people in Paris, is a mealy-mouthed reaction that can’t quite bring itself unequivocally to condemn even the most egregious atrocity – it always reaches for some apparently mitigating factor.
I despised George Bush and opposed the war in Iraq; I hate inequality in my own country and the Middle East. But I don’t think that means I have to hold back from loathing those men who burst into a newspaper office with murder in their hearts. I don’t think I have to try to understand the rage of the men who murdered the American journalist James Foley, and published a video of the torture they put him through.
Extremists hate free speech. They hate writers and journalists, which is why so many have been murdered in recent years. They hate people who ask questions, challenge authority and use humour instead of guns and knives. The answer to the horror in Paris is more writing and more sceptical laughter, hard as that seems as this moment. Journalists have been killed but journalism is alive, and we honour their memory best by continuing to do our jobs.