Most Europeans reacted in the Charlie Hebdo killings in a truly American manner; at least in its American constitutional manifestation regarding freedom of speech. In Europe, freedom of speech has not taken supreme precedent over other rights, privileges, sensitivities or beliefs since… like forever. Little things like sentiments of the majority, propriety, manners, religion, social norms du jur, fashion, prominent political, ideological forces mostly overpowered -and overpower as we speak- the constitutionally established, in almost all European states, and protected right to free speech.Given that even in America other factors play a significant role in often restricting the supreme right to express oneself freely, and even having laws that include distinct exceptions to this rule (slander, provocation of violence, copyright, etc.), still Europe has clearly demonstrated that free speech, quite often, is not a definitive, irrevocable political and social force.
Free speech is a positive right (“right to” as opposed to negative rights, as in “right from”), forged and culminated in its present form in Europe after World War II. A traditionally Caucasian, Christian domain, Europe has been “forced” to encounter several foreign, hostile, otherwordly invaders or nuisances: Jews, Roma, Africans, Arabs (thus, Muslims), immigrants from “behind the Iron Curtain” (do you remember this expression?); “barbarians.” It would be easy, and lately quite apt in certain American social sciences circles, to assign these European –and, often, American– attitudes’ roots to the Greeks: “pas me’ Ellen va’rvaros” (anyone not Greek, a barbarian); a generic assignment to the word “Greek”, if one has not read much other than poorly translated, rarely comprehended, small fragments of certain Athenian scripts of the Golden Age (an interestingly biased term in its own right), and often adulterated by the nuances of the -European- Renaissance.
Applying this background to Charlie Hebdo killings, I cannot but remember Baudrillard’s comments in The Spirit of Terrorism:
Here, then, it is all about death, not only about the violent irruption of death in real time…… but the irruption of a death which is far more than real: a death which is symbolic and sacrificial – that is, to say, the absolute, irrevocable event.
This is the spirit of terrorism.
Never attack the system in terms of relations of force. That is the (revolutionary) imagination the system itself forces upon you — the system that survives only by constantly drawing those attacking it into fighting on the ground of reality, which is always its own. But shift the struggle into the symbolic sphere, where the rule is that of challenge, reversion and outbidding. So that death can be met only by equal or greater death. Defy the system by a gift to which it cannot respond except by its own death and its own collapse.
The Muslim brothers and their friend who murdered the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are no more than a caricature themselves, a cartoon, like the ones which offended them; or those who convinced them to carry out their sad mission only worthy of cowards. Or, anyone who becomes vengeance only when carrying a gun against someone who doesn’t. Well-fed, middle-class, far faraway from any Syrian slaughterhouse, Afghani or Iraqi front.
No, I am not demeaning the potential power of a sketch, a cartoon, an honest sentence or a photograph. Nevertheless, how many outside France –and perhaps in a few more European countries– knew what Charlie Hebdo was before the killings? What was Hebdo cartoonists’ enduring, ground-breaking, new political, social, aesthetic value? How did they “shift the struggle into the symbolic sphere”, and how did they establish a new rule, “that of challenge, reversion and outbidding?” How did their work “meet death by equal or greater death?”, except their physical annihilation, and narratives about Islamic fundamentalism and evil Otherness?
And finally, to the large silent majority out there, watching conventional news and, over and over again, the word “terrorist” misappropriated and consequently engrained into their memory, how did Charles Hebdo “defy the system by a gift to which it cannot respond except by its own death and its own collapse?” Once again, we are the good guys. And they are the assholes.