The brothers Kouachi committed twelve appalling murders, and no justification exists which can absolve them of their guilt. This solemn acknowledgement, unassailable as it is, must surely serve as the point of departure for any discussion of the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. And one may hold fast to such an acknowledgement while at the same time criticising strongly the public and political reactions to events in Paris.
In the aftermath of the killings, a single clarion phrase emerged on social media and rapidly became central to every news report and vigil, to every effusion of (real or imagined) grief. Je suis Charlie is perfect for this twittering world — a short, crisp and ultimately specious distillation, one which, as Scott Long so rightly observed, allows those who are safely ensconced behind their screens to simulate a sense of accomplishment by engaging in a ‘low-cost, risk-free, E-Z solidarity’.1
At any rate, the declaration of oneness, Je suis Charlie, can be interpreted in at least two ways, both of which make it far more than a simple and heartfelt expression of sorrow. Firstly, are those who bleat and tweet this shibboleth identifying themselves with the magazine itself? For years now, Charlie Hebdo has hurled venom at Muslims worldwide by publishing crass and frankly unfunny cartoons that are calculated to provoke and offend. In their satiric guises, Charbonnier and the rest were more juvenile than Juvenal; indeed, they are to the Roman and to Swift what re-tweeted slogans are to genuine fortitude, solidarity and action. This is absolutely not to say that, as fifth-rate farceurs, the murdered cartoonists deserved their terrible fate. Rather, it is to ask why we cannot denounce the Kouachis’ violence, and express grief at the loss of life, without endorsing the gleeful incitement of a group of people who are marginalised if not oppressed wherever they live, whether in the banlieues of France, or the bantustans of Palestine, or beneath American drones from Somalia to Pakistan.
Secondly, the act of typing Je suis Charlie, or of holding up a placard on which the self-same phrase is written, may signify––at least to the tweeter or the holder––that the tweeter or the holder stands for the freedom of expression. That it took a massacre for the masses to champion this ideal is worrying for its health. How cruel and how miserly they are in lending their support! Where were they, for instance, when the French government banned the burqa and the niqab? Where were they last summer, when the French government banned several demonstrations against Israeli inhumanity in Gaza? Where were they, pray tell, when it became a criminal offence in France to question aspects of the Nazi holocaust? Where is their zeal when Dieudonné (a comedian admittedly no wittier than “Charb”) is demonised in the press, and repeatedly arrested? Where is their support for the Muslims who have, in the aftermath of these killings, been prosecuted in summary fashion for uttering statements that the French authorities deem to be supportive of what the French authorities deem to be ‘terrorism’? And how many are expressing sympathy for the child who has been taken into police custody for posting on Facebook a mere pastiche of a Charlie Hebdo cover? There exists here a double standard, the essence of which was captured well by Glenn Greenwald: ‘[a]s always: it’s free speech if it involves ideas I like or attacks groups I dislike, but it’s something different when I’m the one who is offended.’
But the first-person singular pronoun in the incisive statement above does not denote the tweeting rabble as much as it denotes, en masse, the ruling elites. And there’s the rub: when I proclaim that I am Charlie, I proclaim that I am ‘my’ politicians, that I am the dominant socioeconomic class, and that I ratify the terror it commits in my name. What’s more, I demonstrate that I have been bewitched by a Manichean conception of the world, and that I am so stricken with angst or egotism or mulish ignorance that I am prepared to defend or appear to defend it. If I type or tweet or chant Je suis Charlie, the latest advertising jingle of power, I am––knowingly or otherwise––throwing myself headlong behind the imperial War on Terror, and embracing not only the death and the destruction, but the circumscription of my liberty (e.g. in the form of burgeoning mass surveillance) that inevitably comes with it.
Above all, by parroting this phrase, so euphonious to the ears of our elites, and by condemning those who don’t, you and I make very clear that we are being subjected every day to a level of hypnopaedic conditioning—and so display the same, inculcated uniformity of expression—we thought prevalent only in strange and foreign lands.
1. Cf., among many other examples, the ‘Kony 2012’ phenomenon, whose more righteous counterpart ‘Tony 2012’, which sought to have a former British Prime Minister tried for his role in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, gained rather less traction. See also the recent din around The Interview, a film by all accounts so mediocre and tasteless that a blitzkrieg of publicity was needed to persuade people to go and watch it. When one looks back at the clamour, one soon sees that Sony’s greatest achievement lies not in convincing the world that North Korean hackers were to blame (after all, there is no story––however outrageous––that the media won’t concoct about the DPRK), but in having successfully marketed the cinema, that bastion of corporate clout, as an arena for rebellion