Back in 2011, the offices of a French satirical magazine called Charlie Hebdo was firebombed. The picture above is of the magazine’s editor, Stéphane Charbonnier aka Charb, holding the reason for the attack: a cartoon they decided to print that depicted the Prophet Muhammad. By the laws of Islam, it is religiously prohibited to create a likeness of the Prophet in any way, and so the cartoon was considered sacrilege. The cartoonist, as well as any associated with the project, received death threats. The offices were fire bombed. And yet the cartoon was published anyway. It was joined in subsequent years by numerous other cartoons of Muhammad, each compiling the rage aimed at the Paris-based magazine.
After publishing the comic, Charb was quoted in 2012 as saying, “I would rather die standing than live on my knees.”
Well, Charb is dead now. He was shot dead in the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris on January 7th. He was murdered alongside eleven others, including three of the other cartoonists who helped found Charlie Hebdo – Cabu, Tignous, and Wolinski. Eleven others were injured in the attack, four critically. Of the twelve killed, eight were journalists and two were police officers.
The alleged murderers were caught on camera walking into the building all in black. They executed a police officer first, then went up to the office and started shooting. Reports state that they called out the names of those they were going to kill, then executed them. This came from the mouth of one of the suspects, who just before the beginning of my writing this surrendered himself to police. Eighteen-year-old Hamyd Mourad is in custody while the other killers, Said and Cherif Koachi, are both at large. At the time of this writing, so much is still unknown about what happened, about the whereabouts of the two other suspects. But one thing is clear to anyone who is paying attention:
Twelve people lost their lives in Paris on January 7th over the art they created.
From the moment this horrible event happened, people have been jumping to politicize the tragedy. Newspapers across the world trotted out the “Behold, the true and horrible face of Islam!” garbage. (And it is garbage, please, because radicals are radicals and not representative of a whole religion, so let’s not dance that dance, okay?) Donald Trump climbed out of the woodwork to post on Twitter that the victims of this tragedy would have been better off if they’d had guns to protect themselves (yeah, Captain Hairpiece, like the cops didn’t have those – oh why do I bother). Still others wanted to use this to talk about immigration into European countries. Agendas by the armload. Agendas from the rooftops, across blogs and social media and pundit pieces galore. But if you stop listening to the politics for two seconds- close your ears to it and shut your eyes- you’ll hear another rumbling going on across the internet from creators of art everywhere. They’re all asking:
Is this the new standard? When did creating art become so dangerous?
The truth is, it always was. Painters, writers, musicians, poets, illustrators, comic book makers, dancers – all have expressed their ideas in countries across the world and been subject to censure. Some has been subtle, and some has been overt, and a lot of times it’s come down to violence. Because in plenty of places, the freedom of expression, the freedom to create, has not and does not come free.
But today, in 2014, we take for granted that we have the freedom in the western world to create in safety. Our right to freedom of expression is unassailable, inalienable.
Until someone walks into a magazine headquarters and murders people for making cartoons.
It would almost sound absurd if it wasn’t so horrifying. Cartoons of a religious figure made some people angry enough that they picked up guns, walked into a Paris building, and executed other human beings.
Do you shudder at that? I do. It shakes me down to the core.
I’ve written in my time about being considerate with the content of your creative work, about being sure that when you produce art that you are trying to do right by your readership in terms of representation, inclusivity, and sensitivity. And there are battles in our media constantly about content, things that make people angry, things that are meant to shock and are sensational and that trigger and that offend. But at the core of these arguments is always the same (sometimes uncomfortable) ending to the conversation: people should have the right to create what they wish. And when we shrug our shoulders and shake our heads at that, we are glossing over the importance of that saying.
We live in a world where people should have the right to create what they wish.
People lived, fought, worked, and even died to make the freedom to create a right. In some parts of the world, parts far away from the safety of our western lives, they are fighting for that right today in real and bloody ways against open threats we can’t imagine. That right says that for the world to grow and expand and evolve, we as human beings have the right to express ourselves through our speech, our artwork, our writing, all of it. And while we might disagree with someone else’s creations, we are all part of the glorious tapestry of things that are made and things that are expressed. In other words: you might not like it, but you’re not the arbiter of what gets to be created. You are not the arbiter of freedom.
Until someone decides they are. And they pull out some guns. And they go to an office one day in January.
To say that the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo is an attack on freedom of expression is not an attempt to politicize a tragedy, but a solid conclusion. It was the choice of three men to take their grievance over their own religious outrage and turn it into violence. They didn’t choose to make a piece of art slamming Charlie Hebdo. They didn’t make a speech or write a column or make a documentary or any number of proactive ways to express their opinions. They instead decided that they were the arbiters of freedom of expression. Their beliefs trumped another’s right to make things, to express, and ultimately to live.
Does that sound dramatic? Sure. Does that make you nervous? I hope it does. It should.
The right to create is not unassailable. It can be assailed. And when it is assailed, we all feel that shudder as everyone looks around and wonders: should I speak my mind? Should I open my mouth? Make that art? Write that piece? Because in the end, could I be next?
Fear lives in those moments, when you duck your head and wonder if the angry face across from you when you speak your mind will punch you in the face. When those angry comments on the internet will lead to a credible threat on your person. When the credible threat might turn into that one in a thousand, one in a million, that might send you to the hospital, or worse.
That’s fear, right there. That’s what it tastes like. Makes you nervous? Yeah, me too.
And I say to that fear: Fuck. You.
I can’t believe I’m going to quote a Broadway musical, but in Rent one of the lyrics goes: “The opposite of war isn’t peace – its creation.” Sounds easy to say, right? But when there are legitimately people being shot for their creations, its not hard to see the correlation. Peace sounds nice, very solemn and simple and a space made of rest after a conflict, settled and silent and still.
I’m not interested in just being peaceful. I’m interested in creating, so better days can lie ahead besides ones ruled with gun and bomb and threat and repression. I’m interested in sharing ideas, in shaking things up, in making jokes and games and stories and songs. In hearing and seeing and experiencing that which makes the world a brighter, louder, more vibrant place. And with harm to none, I say this: we have to keep creating, no matter the fear. Because we don’t choose guns to share our ideas but words and pictures and music that proves stronger than any bullet at making a point. And in those creations, we celebrate that right and we fight to make sure it doesn’t die out. We create so we can stand up too.
Charb said he wanted to die standing, and he did. And tonight, the cops are hunting halfway across the world for people who chose to destroy his work, who decided to kill him and the other victims of this massacre, over a cartoon.
Does that bother you? It bothers me. It sure as hell does.