Je suis Charlie.
I’ve seen that over and over these last days, that rallying cry in response to the dozen people killed at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper offices in Paris.
This one feels different somehow, doesn’t it? No shopping mall or landmark or school, but a place even more sinister. This feels like a declaration of war not upon a government or a people, but upon the very foundation of Western civilization. The right to freely express one’s views in whatever manner one wishes is a pillar upon which all freedom is based, a right that transcends the rule of man and approaches the realm of the holy. And so I mourned those deaths even as I cheered the protests that followed, those untold thousands who raised not candles in remembrance of the lost, but pens. Chanting, nearly singing as the call filled the air:
Je suis Charlie. I am Charlie.
I’ve spent a lot of time doing something else these past days. I’ve been pondering what it is I do as well. It seems a silly thing on the face of it, scribbling words onto a page. But if the news has shown us anything of late, it is that art wields a power unequaled by politics and guns. Unequaled, even, by terror.
And that’s exactly what writers are. And cartoonists and actors and poets. Painters and composers and musicians. We are artists. Even me. You’ll likely never catch me saying that again. “I’m an artist” sounds a little too fancy for my tastes, a little too conceited. But it’s true. We create. We explore. We tell the world’s stories.
That is why those dozen people were killed.
I hadn’t heard of Charlie Hebdo until this all happened. In the wake of the violence and death, I wanted to see what sort of art could drive people to murder in the name of their God. I went online and looked at a few of their past covers, knowing all the while that the newspaper was an equal opportunity offender — not just Muslims, but Jews and Christians and politicians as well. I stopped when I found a cover cartoon depicting God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit engaging in anal sex.
I suppose a publication devoted to such things becoming the banner for freedom would touch a wrong chord in some. Soon after Je suis Charlie became popular, another name began being chanted — Je suis Ahmed. As in Ahmed Merabet, the Paris policeman shot in front of the Charlie Hebdo headquarters as the attack began. Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim who sacrificed his life for the right of others to mock what he held most dear.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Ahmed, too. About how noble his death was, and how terrible. “We vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends,” said a cartoonist for the paper. I wonder if they would vomit on Ahmed, too.
I don’t know how I feel about any of this. There are times when I sit with pen in hand and shut myself off as the words flow. Not so this time. This time, every stroke and thought has been an agony. Voltaire famously said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” As a writer — as a human being — I have always adopted that philosophy and always will, just as I find inspiration in the words of Charlie Hebdo’s publisher, Stephane Charbonnier, who said before his death, “I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”
But I am not Charlie Hebdo.
If I am indeed an artist, then I am the sort who believes art should not shock, but inspire. It should not tear apart, but bring together. I am the sort who revels in the liberty to speak and write and will fight for that liberty until my dying breath, but I am also the sort who believes with that liberty comes a responsibility to use it wisely and with great love. Yes, I am free. But there lays within that freedom limits that should be imposed not by the rule of man, but the rule of decency. Having the right to do a thing is not the same as being right in doing it.
We live too much by impulse and the desires to entice and confound. We would do better to live more by the heart.