How do you react when faced with the worst terrorist attack in France for 50 years, friends and colleagues massacred, with the world looking on in outrage? You make sure your Facebook page has a black-humour cartoon, a happy New Year greeting showing an Islamic militant wishing “Above all good health” – as the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo did this week. It is the breaking of the final taboo, but surely supporters of Charlie Hebdo, who are already gathering to voice solidarity in mass demonstrations throughout France and beyond, with the “Je Suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) campaign in full tweet, would not wish it any other way.
There have been other terrorist attacks, but if this one seems particularly poignant it is perhaps due to the contradictions and ironies. Charlie Hebdo takes its name from cute old Charlie Brown, the lead character of the Peanuts comic strip and part of a 1960s wave of underground imports to France representing American alternative culture and free-thinking. But Snoopy and friends seem galaxies away from the current version of Charlie, recently attacking Sarkozy’s narrow-mindedness by showing him performing sex acts on male homophobes, or above all laughing in the face of fundamentalist terrorism. Charb, the journal’s director and one of those who died in the attack, had posted his final cartoon portraying an armed militant reacting to the statement that there had still been no terrorist attacks in France: “Hang on! We’ve got until the end of January to present our best wishes.”
Charlie Hebdo and its artists are household names in France. The magazine boasts intellectual social commentary, but remains accessible and cheeky. It is as if we have been witnessing the assassination of both Jean-Paul Sartre and Ian Hislop, but even ruder, sillier and more offensive. Left-thinking and above all iconoclastic, the journal is known for asking what in the modern world cannot be said, and then saying it. Or, moreover, showing it, particularly in the case of depictions of Muhammad. Charlie Hebdo’s effect owes much to the immediacy and the visual impact of the art of comics, seen in France as the Ninth Art, and therefore on a par with poetry, theatre and architecture. It is ironic, then, that those who live by the visual should die by the visual, in a terrorist attack moulded to fill the looping videos of the world’s media.
It is the contradictions that make it so hard to predict where France will go next in the aftermath of an event of this magnitude. We might be tempted to foresee an anti-Islam backlash, but that would be the very reaction of the redneck cartoon characters created and lampooned by the likes of Cabu and Wolinski. It is the reactionary racists who would have found Charlie’s humour irresponsible, stupid or just nasty – epithets that the journal gleefully applied to itself – and, seeing it gunned down, might then find themselves in an emotional quandary. In theory, at least. Beyond the black humour and the voyeurism of the media images inevitably comes a knot in the stomach, an intense sadness. We are reminded of a quote attributed to one of the pillars of French irreverent satire, Voltaire, that he might have detested what you were saying, but that he would defend to the death your right to say it.