I am not Charlie.
If I was, I would be dead by now.
It really is that harsh and stark and simple. Every time I see another Facebook meme, banner or plaque saying Je suis Charlie, I think “No, you’re not.” The Charlies of the world are being shot down for speaking truth and persecuted for standing up to injustice and bigotry. They stand up for freedom of speech and the right to offend in an open society and they pay the price of the few for the cowardice of the many.
To say today, the day after, that we are all Charlie is an outrage when we as a society were happy to censor these pictures before they were dripping with blood. There should not have to be a massacre for us to stand up for freedom of speech, and once we are forced to stand that backbone should last more than the obligatory 24 hours.
But I fear that it won’t.
It’s not as if there haven’t been other examples, other Charlies along the way. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Salman Rushdie, Theo Van Gogh, Lars Vilks, The Jylland Post – these are the names of people who have stood up for freedom and in return had their freedom taken away, all while the world was watching.
Charlie Hebdo makes fun of people and institutions with influence, the underdog speaking truth to power. Some may be offended, but discomfort is a part of the human experience and freedom from offense isn’t nearly as important as freedom of speech. It should be that easy. If we take out the politics, the religion, and the choosing of sides, there should be some basic values that we can all gather around and defend. But no, instead we stand by, time and time again, to see freedom of speech be sacrificed in the name of appeasement. As long as we do not call the culprits out but leave the victims to fend for themselves, we have no right to call ourselves Charlie or to score cheap points through Monday morning quarterbacking.
I was out playing in the snow with my kids when I got the newsflash on my phone: terrorists had shot at least 10 journalists working at a satirical magazine. My first thought was that it was jihadists. My very first thought. This is not a racist impulse. It is the result of being a person who reads the news and knows the world.
Neither Christians nor Jews go on organized killing sprees based on mockery and there was no rampage following the musical entirely dedicated to poking fun at Mormons. The Western world has a problem with radical Islam — or rather radical Islam has a problem with the Western world. In the deafening silence it has festered, growing with each tale of “crazy lone assailants”. One can think whatever one wants about the content of Charlie Hebdo’s satire, but this is not an art review. This is the most important conversation a society can have: about basic human rights, freedoms, and responsibilities. For too long we have accepted the reign of violence and fear, hoping another step back would grant peace. This has to change. As a society we need to establish a baseline of values that we build upon; values we demand ourselves and others to uphold. Not slaying innocent people when we get offended should be one of them. Deciding that freedom for trumps freedom from when it comes to expression ought to be another.
I am not Charlie.
I have censored myself on so many occasions for fear of violence, outrage, and loss of livelihood. I feel shame today, along with the hurt and sadness. I feel shame because I know that my self-censorship put all the responsibility for my freedom on the shoulders of these fallen giants, even though I know this should be our common core. In the wake of this massacre I promise to learn. I promise to do better in honor of those who taught me that lesson with their life.
During his speech on September 14th, 2001, George W Bush said that adversity introduces us to ourselves. Now, and in the days following France’s own 9/11, Europe has to confront what it is and decide on what it wishes to be going forward.
The Facebook memes, banners, and plaques should not say I am Charlie, but rather I will be Charlie. Instead of this easy, breezy write-off, they should offer an apology for complacency and a promise to shoulder the responsibility going forward.
I am not Charlie, but I will try to be going forward. I can promise you that much.