The news hit London around morning teatime, a grainy image popping up in the Twitter feed. Pretty soon, the news made clear what it was part of — a violent attack on the offices of Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo (Charlie Weekly, or, Your Average Weekly), with at least 11 dead, and more injured. Barring bizarre events, there wasn’t going to be any doubt who had done it. Charlie Hebdo is more free-wheeling in its satire than Private Eye, its UK counterpart, and has been especially willing to go the tonk on religion, in old-fashioned, gauchiste anti-clerical style. From the ’60s until Charlie Hebdo closed in 1981, that target was usually the church. When it came back in 1992, and in the wake of the Rushdie affair, and the rise of Islamism as a political movement, Islam began to get the same treatment. But it wasn’t a huge focus for them, with their attention turned more towards embedded French political power, showbiz and literary gossip (never really separated in French life) and cartoons more or less incomprehensible to anyone not up with Parisian idiom.
The magazine had received violent threats before, from both Islamist groups, nationalists and a French zionist terrorist group called the “Jewish Defence League” (not the US group) — which objected to some low-taste “holocaust humour” cartoons which might be an unpleasant surprise to many of Charlie’s newfound friends. Other threats followed republication of the Danish Muhammad cartoons in 2008. In 2011, it produced an issue ostensibly guest-edited by Muhammad — “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter” — after which its office was firebombed and obliterated. It was back in action immediately with rising sales, and ever more brio, until this.
Three masked, black-clad men wielding AK-47s got into the building mid-morning, by hijacking a staff member as she was going in. They didn’t kill her, and ran down the corridor and into offices shouting the names of people they were after. They found most of them in an editorial meeting, killing 10, three writers and editors, and seven of the country’s leading cartoonists. On the way out, they shouted “we have avenged the prophet!”, were blocked off by an arriving police car, and shot it out, killing a wounded officer execution-style, before getting away. They are still on the loose, having hijacked another car.
Hours later, Europe was still reeling from the shock — not merely of the attack itself, but of the sudden loss of half the country’s great cartoonists, including two national treasures, Cabu and Georges Wolinski. It would be like, in one hit, losing Bruce Petty and Michael Leunig. And Coopes and Moir and First Dog and David Pope. Shocking also was the smooth professionalism of the attack, with video footage of the three killers suggesting that they had military training. The West likes its Islamist killers suicidal or deranged or both. This attack was like the sort of terror Paris is well-accustomed to — the black-clad, right-wing OAS of the ’60s, brazenly gunning down opponents of Algerian independence, Mossad assassinating Black September and other Palestinians, Turks taking out Kurds, and the bombing campaign by Carlos “the Jackal” Ramirez, trying to prompt release of his guerrillas in the 1980s. Early afternoon, the world held its breath for 10 minutes.
Then the usual imbecility began, the sort that the now departed staff of Charlie Hebdo would have pilloried remorselessly. Thousands reading their Twitter feed in line waiting for a hazelnut latte tweeted “#istandwithcharliehebdo” — cost-free, zero-content pseudo-solidarity that flatters the issuer. Politicians, commentators etc made sententious statements about freedom of speech being absolute, a right etc — as if the attack was some sort of opening gambit in a debate about religious vilification laws. American neocons issued effusive words of support, perhaps unaware that several Charlie Hebdo cartoons had ended up in Iran’s “Holocaust Humour” exhibition of a few years ago issued statements. French politicians, some of whom had tried to close down the magazine using draining legal assaults, now had to stand in solidarity — including President Francois Hollande, last seen on the cover with his dick hanging out of his pants, the membre petite with a speech balloon saying “Moi, Presidente”. All of them had, years earlier, asked Charlie Hebdo not to publish the Danish Muhammad cartoons. Now, with the act done, they were suddenly supporters in retrospect.
“That the killers did not randomly shoot uninvolved strangers was a clear political act too. They wanted it to be clear that specific individuals, and the police, were the targets …”
US Secretary of State John Kerry, whose government has unquestionably received French DGSE buggings of the Hebdo office, said “we are all Charlie Hebdo”. Queen Elizabeth II, whose family have variously been depicted as vibrators, tampons, and everything else, issued her condolences. Peak asinine was reached when people gleefully remarked that the killers had only served to make Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons more widespread, declared that they had not won, and intimated that they were too stupid to have done so.
This was ridiculous. Of course the terrorists had won. They set themselves a narrow operation — they harmed no one when they initially barged into the wrong office — which was to obliterate the magazine’s staff, and they did it. The suggestion that there was anything “medieval” about such an operation was simply drivelling self-congratulatory liberalism on autopilot. What’s “medieval” about killing people who traduce your idea of the truth? Europe spent most of the 20th century doing that. That’s not an exception to modernity — it’s most of what modernity has been. The shock in France relates in part to the very, well, French character of the event. Exemplary political terror is more or less a Parisian invention after all — indeed the liberal republic from within which the right to free speech is intoned, was founded on terror. By 6pm, on BBC Radio, someone was quoting Voltaire “I disagree with what you say, but …’ etc. Voltaire never said that, but he did express hope that the last king would be strangled with the guts of the last priest, so he appears to have had a soft spot for terror too. All very confusing, isn’t it?
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So of course they prevailed in this encounter. They punched a hole in French national culture. There’s nothing fair about one’s status in death and so it is cruelly true that to take out a bunch of the country’s most loved cartoonists is a harder hit, even though killing 12 random people on the street would have been no less tragic. But it’s important to understand what sort of a cultural attack this was. Charlie Hebdo didn’t have the cultural reach of Private Eye, with 200,000, still less of someone like Jon Stewart or The Chaser. It had sales of 50,000 a week in a country of 50 million. For a mainly Parisian elite, it was indispensable, part of the furniture of life that we call culture. Millions of French people have never heard of it, never seen a copy. For three young attentive Muslims — no doubt freshly re-enraged by each succeeding issue featuring imams with their dicks tied into turbans etc etc — Hebdo, one suspects, represented not the West en masse, but the elitist metropolitan culture that negated their faith by refusing to recognise its rules as sacred. Hebdo’s been as excoriating of the West’s imperial wars as any leftist publication. and there are plenty of French right-wing tabloids that are effectively fascist in their attitude to Muslims, triumphant examples of the Crusader West. The sophistication of the operation suggests not merely Islamic State-style field training, but proper military training. Survivors reported that they had spoken in native-tongue French, and they were later identified as two brothers, Said Kouachi and Cherif Kouachi and a teenager Hamyd Mourad. At time of going to press, there were reports that they had been captured in Reims, East of Paris.
By nightfall in Europe, the full absurdity of trying to say something meaningful against such a successful act of political assassination was becoming clear. For decades the Hebdo crowd had been pilloried as corrosive and cynical, enemies of society and especially of La Patrie. And for all that they are described as satirical, their humour had more than a touch of nihilism about it. The sort of gags that got the Chaser hunted down for months on end by the right-wing media were the weekly trade of Charlie Hebdo — the name itself was the third it had had, after being twice banned by the French state, and having to re-emerge in another form. Indeed, their ragging on imams etc was starting to become a little obsessive. Though it was always pretty funny, there was a Richard Dawkinsesque quality to it, in which all the frustration that young men of the 1960s had had with the very powerful Church, was transferred to the pretty marginal institutions of European Islam, as their moralising began to contradict the secular 60s dream. But they were always good for a dick joke.
By late evening, Hollande was calling these late ageing enfant terribles “heroes of the nation” which was the last thing they had wanted to be. It was the sort of twist — satirists enrolled as representatives of the state — that would have been the sort of thing dreamed up by Charlie Hebdo.
For journalists everywhere, this unquestioned act — which was first and foremost a targeted political assassination — was also an act of terror. Less so for civilians. That the killers did not randomly shoot uninvolved strangers was a clear political act too. They wanted it to be clear that specific individuals, and the police, were the targets. For journalists, it was the sudden realisation that someone might be out there, reading everything you’d written or that your work was just appearing beside, and planning their move. Attacks in the weeks previous had been utterly random, with several Muslims driving trucks into crowds on the street. Crazed and far from effectual, they don’t sharpen the sense of threat overmuch.
The Charlie Hebdo attack prompted an almost manic release of statements of things that by their very nature should not need to be stated — that free speech is a principle on which our societies are based, that we should not let fear start to determine what we write. Commentators outdid themselves in otiose stupidity, the best of which was Suzanne Moore at The Guardian, suggesting that “we should ridicule” the killers instead. But ridicule works in exactly the opposite direction to all the other ineffectual things people were saying. What could you possibly say about the killers that was both a) belittling and b) true, when they had succeeded absolutely, and the whole of the West had now reorganised the meaning of its being around these events? Like it or not, for the next while, this event is the black hole around which our universe turns.
Given the satanic darkness of the event, it is tempting to call it nihilistic. It is nothing of the sort, simply an extremely ruthless political act, founded on a set of fervent and concrete beliefs, not on a nothingness. We call it nihilistic because there is an asymmetry between the ungroundedness of our contemporary culture, and the fervent certainties of theirs. Indeed the sort of terror that violent Islamists can provoke is due to their radical refusal of any sort of common ground. Much of the terror that Paris has played host to over the decades and centuries was part of a dialogue, however violent, over the broad direction of modernity, and the claims of right of different groups. But violent Islamism has not the slightest interest in that dialogue. The more from the other side that you insist that a simple meta-political rule like freedom of speech is the sacred value to which you hold, and that you will not be intimidated, the more you emphasise how little is actually sacred in your culture, how contentless it is. Putting a meta-meta-practice like satire — especially the undermining satire of a mag like Charlie Hebdo — at the centre of your culture, is to say you have almost no culture at all.
“Violence is a refusal of dialogue, and any complex modern society will always contain a small number of people willing to make that refusal at any given time.”
This conundrum is one of the reasons that culture conservatives with a dash of Islam-envy — people like Niall Ferguson or Andrew Bolt or Nick Cater — put such emphasis on the idea of a Christian revival in the West, and it’s also why they regard organisations like Charlie Hebdo or the Chaser or whoever, as the true enemies of the Western cultural revival. But the weakness of our culture, its ungrounding by the forces of capital and technology over recent decades, means that we can no longer make a response of silent dignity and resilience to such acts. We have to have the whole theatre, the logo, the marches, and now god help us, laying out pencils as some sort of symbol of something or other. None of the routine terror that made its way across Europe in the post-World War II years drew out this desperate need to make meaning through jerry-built symbols. Words of defiance will do nothing to the killers. They’ll either go out in a blaze of suicidal glory if cornered, or they’ll go out on a Eurolines bus to Germany and disappear into the crowds of the cities. Even capture and lifelong imprisonment would be lit by the glow of their act. There’s something deeply pathetic about this search for a way in which to undermine a single focused act of terror whose meaning is complete, and doesn’t require any more inadvertent bigging up. I’m writing this from a city that was bombed for more than 500 days during World War II, waking many mornings to 500 deaths. My mother walked to school, aged seven, during the winter into spring 1944-45, when first the V1s and then the silent V2s missiles rained capricious mass death down on London. Had they stopped to put flowers on every obliterated terrace of houses, no-one would have got anything done. Resilience against that had little to do with obsessing on what the Nazis didn’t get. It was about the country itself was, understood in terms of itself, and not defined against a force it had already seen as negating.
In Australia, the situation is much worse, since we have been willing to wear down the resilience that our culture once prided itself on, with a ceaseless performance of public emotionality, and a weird celebration of fear as a form of collective being. Our culture is so atomised and so depresso-genic, that a mainstream media desperate for public events takes any occurrence, wraps it in overkill, and then puts a Beyond Blue message at the end of it. Having spent two weeks mourning a cricketer killed in a freak accident, we then tried to turn a fucked-up hostage taker — whose complaint was that the High Court would not recognise his loyalty to Australia — into a terrorist mastermind. What will we do if we have to face a Charlie Hebdo situation on our own soil? The systematic undermining of our self-possession — done for the most obvious political purposes — suggests that we would be consumed by it.
For those who would like to avoid that, if/when a well-planned and executed terror event is visited upon us, we need to start talking back to this attempt to enrol every aspect of society as a “hero” in defence of its “values”, a sort of soft militarisation of the pluralist and untotalised way of life that is ostensibly the thing we value. Violence is a refusal of dialogue, and any complex modern society will always contain a small number of people willing to make that refusal at any given time. Shaping your discourse around their acts is pointless and stultifying. For some people, changing aspects of your life to respond to such threats is not giving into fear, it is a simple recognition that the notion of universal consent to “democracy” is pure rhetoric, and hides the fact that there is no ultimate court of appeal where a turn to violence can be rebuffed by an act of speech. There is never a point, or never for very long, when every group in society has renounced violence as a legitimate act, and trying to “disprove” their claimed legitimacy as if it were an error in maths is futile. They must simply be treated as crimes, even if they have a political dimension, prevented where they can be, apprehended where not. It is the few who are exposed to excess risk that should be taking extra precautions not the many, uninvolved, who should be mobilised in a form of pseudo-national defence, with its denial of pluralism, and conscription to what usually comes with it — an imperial vision that threatens mayhem over the next hill, against the next other.