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A Yankee Notebook

January 12, 2015


MONTPELIER – As the news broke of last week’s homicidal attack on the satirical French journal Charlie Hebdo, many of us were left gasping, shaking our heads in sorrow, or wondering what in the world could possibly be said about such an incomprehensible act.

Quite a bit, as it turns out. Like Mrs. Cratchit’s pudding, everybody had something to say about it. Rupert Murdoch asserted that Muslims worldwide need to apologize and atone for the deadly deeds of their extremist brethren. And as if taking inspiration from him, the Internet lit up with threats of righteous vengeance and graphic descriptions of what should happen to the sons and daughters of the Prophet everywhere.

The attack has been rightly seen as an attempt to throttle free speech, the keystone block of democracy. More than a million marchers, led by President François Holland of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, side by side, turned out the next day in the Place de la Liberté (Google it; you’ll recognize the statue at its center) to affirm its existence. One Frenchman, asked by a television reporter for a comment, said, “We fought a revolution over freedom to express ourselves, and we will not go back from it.” Trouble is, many bloggers and commenters – not just American ones – seem more than ready to abridge the free speech of their fellow citizens of different ethnicity, skin color, and religious persuasions.

It’s all very depressing and familiar. We human beings, who’ve designated ourselves the only sapient species on the planet, have been at each other’s throats for millennia now, and show no signs of letting up. As one poet put it, “We’re still rolling rocks down on each other.”

Some years ago, during an Arctic canoe trip on which terrible weather had raised stress levels to the breaking point, I blew up at a friend who I thought wasn’t being considerate of the others’ distress. A few hours later, an older and wiser man took me aside and offered some life-altering advice. “If you’ve got a problem with somebody,” he said, “ you tackle the problem, not the person. Attacking the person only confuses the issue and doesn’t solve anything.”

Charlie Hebdo – which I dare say few of us Americans have ever heard of till now – is a fairly fierce satirical journal. Among its targets have been Muslim extremists and even the revered Prophet himself. Like the Danish newspaper that was condemned for running a cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb for a turban; or Salman Rushdie, placed under a death sentence for his Satanic Verses (to me, a fairly mild criticism, by American standards, of Islam), Charlie Hebdo has the ability to offend folks with an incompletely developed sense of humor. It had been fire-bombed before, at its previous location. Its new location was more nearly secure, but hardly a fortress; I read in one account that an unwitting housewife had politely held the door open for the brothers Kouachi, who entered the offices and began their bloody execution.

Cartoons have the power to amuse, provoke, disgust, or incite. I almost always enjoy Jeff Danziger’s cartoons, for example, because we agree on almost everything. But I admit to anger when I view my weekly dose of the cartoonist Glenn McCoy, whose depictions of President Obama I find insulting. Many others obviously don’t. But we don’t shoot each other about it.

What we probably ought to keep in mind, when we consider the differences between us, is how much we’re alike. The pilgrims, fleeing Great Britain for religious freedom in the New World, enforced their stern theocratic rules wherever they could. Old ladies with enemies (or property that somebody coveted) often found themselves tried as witches by ecclesiastical courts and condemned to death. Later, during our Revolution, Tories were forced off their land, which was promptly appropriated by patriots – the reason that to this day English is widely spoken in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. It’s interesting for me to read the history of Islam and realize that, just like Christianity, it began to splinter into sects just weeks after the death of its founder.

Something else we evolved Christians ought to remember is that we have a 600-year head start on Islam, and that 600 years ago we were still burning heretics – meaning those who disagreed with the Church’s interpretation of Scripture: William Tyndale, Joan of Arc, and Jan Hus, for starters. John Wycliffe, who died of a stroke, was exhumed and immolated posthumously. Our own history is at least as fierce as modern Sharia Law. We’ve been relieved of its worst effects by the intervention of secular constitutions, written by geniuses, that protect our right to believe and behave as we wish, as long as we don’t interfere with anyone else’s right to do the same.

This is in sharp contrast to our old ally Saudi Arabia, whose oil reserves we’ve coveted and exploited for many decades, and where a dissident blogger, Raif Badawi, has been sentenced to 1000 hard lashes, to be administered fifty at a time for twenty weeks, and then to serve a ten-year prison term, for the effrontery of discussing religion. He’s lucky; the original charge was apostasy, for which the penalty is death, usually by stoning.

France will survive this terror attack more committed than ever to its freedom of speech, which it practices much more pointedly than we do ours. Its biggest problem at the moment is the same as ours: extremist ideologues who throw red meat day after day to willing, credulous young men who perceive themselves as persecuted victims, conceive fantastic scenarios to inflict damage on their imagined oppressors, and have access to the means to realize those gruesome fantasies.

Photo by Willem lange