There is so much that is tragic about the Charlie Hebdo case. People lost their lives to senseless violence that tore at the heart of France and moved the international community. The entire situation is a maelstrom of emotions. The acts of terror are unforgivable, but as is the case in situations of great tragedy, the event itself quickly gets drowned in a storm of social forces that manipulate the conversation in insidious ways. It is the price we pay when we allow conversation to disintegrate.
When horror strikes, we are overwhelmed by emotion; it is only natural. We feel for our fellow man, we sympathize with those suffering, and in our grief we are at our most human. But tragedies have a way of shutting down conversations. Due to the sensitive nature of cases like Charlie Hebdo, it becomes difficult to talk rationally or critically without seeming callous or facing backlash. We saw this in the case of Charlie Hebdo.
In the outpouring of support, any voice that tried to speak out critically or called for a more nuanced analysis of the situation was quickly drowned out. You were either with Charlie Hebdo or you were against it. This perspective echoes, nearly identically, the one articulated by former President George W. Bush after 9/11.
You know what though, we went along with it. Our grief and our pain become ready tools for politicians and pundits who quickly take advantage of the situation. It is no great conspiracy, one needs only to remember the words of Rahm Emanuel, the former presidential Chief of Staff, when he said “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.” When we allow our emotions, our fear, and our anger cloud our ability to look at a situation critically we allow politicians and pundits to take advantage of the situation.
We should stand with Charlie Hebdo. We shouldn’t kowtow to terrorism, but to do that we need to start asking some tough questions. Why aren’t we asking about the nature of free speech in the Western world? Why does it protect some speech but not other types? What is significant about that? Why are we being told a story in the media that portray the terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo as immigrants, when in actuality they were French citizens? What is significant about the terrorists being home-grown rather than foreign? It is difficult to ask tough questions when a tragedy happens. The nature of tragedy historically is that it brokers no discussion. It takes years and years before the critical eye of history allows us to look back with retrospective vision.
But the only way to ensure that cases like Charlie Hebdo do not happen again is for people to come together and examine why and how it happened in the first place. Both of these are essential elements of the equation that provide an answer badly needed. It requires meaningful insight and conversation.
This is where we have failed. Tragedies happen and will continue to happen, but we have a responsibility to determine our responses to them. The outpouring of sympathy and solidarity for Charlie Hebdo is fitting. We should stand by our principles to support free speech. We should not however lose sight that support of free speech does immediately equate to support for the content of the speech. I support Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech and no one should die for expressing that right, but that doesn’t mean that I wholeheartedly agree with everything they published. Much of their satire targeted the marginalized and voiceless and often bordered on racist, sexist, and xenophobic. It should be alright for us to have this perspective. To be critical of Charlie Hebdo’s content does not mean I do not support their right to free speech. We must have the capacity to have nuanced perspectives without falling into false dichotomies.
Similarly, the demand for action is fitting in the wake of the tragedy, but that demand should not be a blank check to politicians. With ungracious and disrespectful speed, politicians have co-opted the tragedy to further push their own agendas. From David Cameron’s use of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy to push for more internet monitoring, to Benjamin Netenhyahu’s use of the tragedy as a platform to ask for support for Israel, each act is a disservice to those who have lost their lives. It is a shameless manipulation made possible by our tacit approval.
This is the price we pay when we allow tragedy to cloud our minds. We should feel for our fellow man, but when we allow tragedy to blind us to the point where reasonable conversation and dialogue shuts down, well, that is a tragedy all its own.