“Je suis Charlie!” I am Charlie. That’s what Secretary of State John Kerry, ambassador to France Jane Hartley, thousands of T-shirts, and an online meme say. As a writer for a paper in a town in a society that says it values freedom above all, and explicitly guarantees a right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, my initial reaction is to silkscreen my own T-shirt, “I am Charlie encore!”
I was reluctant to add to the swirling tornado of opinions on causes, conditions and cures while Charlie Hebdo’s wounds are still fresh. But as I watch events unfold and grieve for the victims and families, I remember how violence and the threat of violence shapes our behavior in subtle and shadowy ways.
The Cold War cast a small shadow over my childhood. Our era grew up with the background fear that one day we’d be playing in the summer sun, daydreaming about Sexy Sadie, and the sirens would sound. We’d look up to see vapor trails of the Tupelov bombers. Those Russkies meant to send us on a quick trip from the summer sun to Armageddon and an eternal nuclear winter.
Since Columbine and 9/11, some of our beliefs and behaviors have been shaped by the threat of terrorists and random violence. We fear disenfranchised, lonely, sullen kids, walking into our Columbine’s or Sandy Hook’s and unloading a few clips—just because. We may have concerns about getting killed because your cartoon offends a group’s deeply held religious beliefs—beliefs you consider primitive and fanatical.
Killing over cartoons, over satire, to avenge your God?
At the risk of life and limb, and sounding like Richard Dawkins, it’s a poor and impotent deity indeed that needs human arms and blood to defend it—to kill for it. Killing over cartoons, even vicious satire, sounds stupid. But that’s what we do. We’re human. We kill for territory, food, God, country, and honor. On rarer occasions, we kill over cartoons. I feel like shouting, “I am Charlie encore!”
As much as I’m angry about the events, I’m not sure I’m in complete solidarity with Charlie. The Murphy’s Law of tragedy is that if there can be a darker side to horror, there will be. An even darker side to this set of tragic events is that merely because we are human, we are not only vulnerable to intimidation, but we use violence and the threat of violence to defend our opinions and further our interests. That’s a shadow I don’t want to see.
Mercifully, most of us will never take that human behavior to the horrible extreme of the terrorists, but has anyone not said something like, “One more joke about my mother and I’m gonna sock you one but good,” and then done it? This shadow reminds me that although not nearly to the same horrible scale, I’ve used threats of violence to defend my opinions or obtain advantage. If you’ve never used a threat of violence to defend your beliefs or get your way, I tip my hat to you.
Fortunately, and like most of us, I’ve used violence instrumentally less frequently than I’ve changed my behaviors as a result of a threat of violence. Heck, I’ve even edited my words for fear I would offend someone prone to aggressive behavior.
In fact, subtle intimidation is one reason I decided to file this piece. I had been thinking of standing in front of the Confederate Monument on the Raleigh’s capitol grounds and reciting the Gettysburg Address on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and maybe writing something about the experience. But what if I offended someone prone to violence? What if my expression offended someone’s sensibilities to the point of harsh retaliation? Would I be strange fruit hanging from a tree?
I probably won’t recite at the capitol, but not because of fear. I probably won’t recite because I reason it’s not helpful, not consistent with my values, and not consistent with using reason and compassion to make me a slightly better person, and maybe contributing to a slightly more just society.
Violence is a complex virus, surrounded by complex questions, and not prone to easy cures. However, I do agree with Fox News host Lisa Kennedy Montgomery’s comment about this latest episode, “The best thing we can do is arm ourselves.” I don’t know what she’s packing, but I’m arming myself with reason and compassion.