What I Learned After ‘Charlie Hebdo’
Terror works, the media fosters it and Islamists work against themselves
On Jan. 7, Islamist gunmen entered the offices of the storied satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The masked men executed two police officers and 10 employees.
They murdered cartoonists, journalists and Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief.
On Jan. 9, French authorities cornered the suspected killers—the brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi—in a printing factory. The two left the factory with guns blazing. The French police shot them down.
Two other members of the group—Hayat Boumeddiene and Amedy Coulibaly—held up a kosher grocery store in Paris and took hostages. Police stormed the shop. Coulibaly and four hostages died.
According to police, Boumeddiene fled and is still on the loose.
The brothers attacked Charlie Hebdo because the magazine often poked fun at the Prophet Mohammed. The brothers proved terrorism works, to a point.
Numerous media outlets refused to show the offending images.
But the event also proved the Islamists’ poor grasp of the modern world’s information flow.
The images spread widely—far beyond the weekly circulation of Charlie Hebdo. By attempting to stop people from producing images of the Prophet, Islamists achieved the opposite.
Offensive images spread, satirists become motivated to produce more images, and more violence comes from extremists in response. It’s a nasty cycle we’re nowhere close to breaking.
Terrorism is the use of extreme violence, or the threat of violence—typically against highly symbolic targets—to intimidate and frighten a perceived enemy.
People use terrorism because it is effective. The years after the 9/11 attacks prove this. Radical Islamists killed almost 3,000 people. America went to war. Thousands more died.
Air travel—already an uncomfortable pain—transformed into a Kafkaesque nightmare. American police officers hoovered up armored vehicles and assault weapons to combat the specter of terrorism.
The U.S. spent trillions of dollars and countless lives to topple a dictatorship in Iraq. Now the Islamic State spreads through the area like a cancer, gobbling up power in the vacuum left behind by Saddam.
When North Korea got pissed at Sony for making a comedy about killing its leader, it used hackers to disrupt Sony’s business and threatened violence on the theaters who showed the film. It worked.
The Interview aired, yes, but only in a few theaters and the privacy of people’s homes. The major movie chains didn’t show it for fear of violence.
Two men with a homemade bomb shut down Boston for several days. We take off our shoes before boarding a flight for fear of bombs in the soles. We’re scanned, prodded and poked. Bags containing fluids may only be so large.
All this because of fear. Fear of violence. Fear of terrorism.
Charlie Hebdo is a rare organization—and not just because they employed cartoonists. Its writers and cartoonists were brave. They told the stories they wanted to tell. They drew the disgusting, offensive and delightful cartoons they wanted to draw. They knew the risks and took them anyway.
Most of us aren’t like that. Most of us are cowards. Terrorists make the brave pay with their lives. The media reinforces that fear.
In the 201st episode of South Park, Tom Cruise decides he’s tired of being mocked. To achieve this goal, he attempts to steal the essence of the Prophet Mohammed.
Cruise has solid reasoning—no one dare mock Mohammed. Trey Parker and Matt Stone—the creators of South Park are no strangers to insensitive portrayals of the Prophet—avoided showing Mohammed in the episode.
They did so by using crude stick figure pictures, dressing the Prophet in a ridiculous bear costume and covering his body with a large black bar labeled “censored.” Despite their efforts—and probably because of them—Parker and Stone received death threats. They went ahead with the story anyway.
At the end of the two episode arc, Cruise uses a machine to steal the prophet’s essence. But it doesn’t work, and people still make fun of him.
He wants to know why. Jesus, Santa Claus and Kyle—one of the show’s main characters—explain it to him.
Kyle begins the speech—the moral lesson of the episode. In both the original broadcast and the DVD release, the studios censored the speech. Kyle opens his mouth and a long continuous beep plays. Jesus and Santa also speak. Their words are also censored.
The episode isn’t available online, nor is it rebroadcast. What was so damaging about Kyle, Jesus and Santa’s words?
In January 2014—four years after the episodes initial release—an uncensored version of the episode surfaced online.
“I learned something today,” Kyle starts. “The magical power of threatening people with violence. That’s obviously the only true power. If there’s anything we’ve all learned, it’s that terrorizing people works.”
“That’s right,” Jesus says. “If you don’t want to be made fun of anymore, all you need are guns and bombs to get people to stop.”
“That’s right, friends,” Santa Claus agrees. “All you need to do is instill fear and be willing to hurt people and you can get whatever you want. The only true power is violence.”
Comedy Central’s censorship of the episode drives home its point. Terrorism works. The aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre proves it all over again.
Old media failed
“In a media environment totally dominated by image it was not considered appropriate to tell the American public, ‘Here’s a story that’s all about the fight over some pictures. But we’re not going to show you what the pictures are,’” journalist Christopher Hitchens said in 2005.
He was talking about the news media’s refusal to show offending cartoons from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The small Danish paper caused a stir in 2005 when it ran editorial cartoons of Mohammed.
“It’s either out of fear of the religious or it’s out of fear of offending them,” Hitchens concluded. “Which comes to more or less the same thing. It’s blackmail.”
At the center of the Charlie Hebdo attacks were years worth of cartoons. Hilarious, disgusting and offensive cartoons lampooning every conceivable authority figure on the planet.
Those cartoons are at the core of this story. The terrorists’ rage focused on the cartoons, which gives the people who report the news an obligation to make those images public.
Most major old media outlets have not shown the offending images. CNN went so far to show other inflammatory Charlie Hebdo covers while leaving aside those offensive to Islam.
The New York Daily News censored the Charlie Hebdo covers in its media coverage, as did several other publications. The Associated Press, The New York Times and MSNBC are not showing the images.
For anyone representing those news agencies to declare Je suis Charlie is a grotesque hypocrisy. New media outlets—those circulating entirely online—all ran the images. Vox, Buzzfeed, Slate and The Daily Beast all reprinted the cartoons.
Some might argue that old media avoids publishing offensive images because the outlets are more exposed. The New York Times has an office. An iconic one. It’s easier to find such places and strike a blow against them than an Internet-only operation.
The line of thinking sees Charlie Hebdo as vulnerable because it’s exposed. It published the cartoons in print. Newsstands sold the print magazine. Their journalists and cartoonists worked in an office. But the new media outlets have offices, too.
The reporters, writers and photographers working at those companies leave public lives. They maintain an online presence. It’s not hard for the dedicated to track anyone of us down and begin a campaign of harassment.
New media companies are just as exposed—and in some cases more exposed—than old media companies.
But with few exceptions, new media has the courage to do what old media didn’t. It ran the Charlie Hebdo covers unedited. Better for readers to see what the fuss was all about. To not publish the images is an extraordinary act of cowardice.
Both the Associated Press and The New York Times told Buzzfeed they have a policy of not showing deliberately provocative images. How out of touch.
What the old media either doesn’t understand or willfully ignores is that the cat is out of the bag. The images are out there. To not print them both undermines an organization’s legitimacy and shows their solidarity with those who wish to ban the images—the violent murderers.
Islamists don’t understand the Streisand Effect
The old media’s refusal puts them in the same ideological ballpark as those who make apologies for the killers.
Bill Donohue—president of the Catholic League—wrote an editorial on his organization’s Website entitled, “Muslims Are Right to Be Angry.”
“Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter,” Donohue wrote.
“It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death … Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive.”
I won’t argue whether or not Muslims are right to be angry. They certainly have the right to be angry. They do not—however—have the right to kill when they’re offended. Donohue’s little essay is equivalent to the old rape apologist’s cliche— “She was asking for it. Did you see what she was wearing?”
His title strikes a chord, though. What are Muslims right to be angry about?
The proscription against graven images is an old one. It’s the third of Moses’ 10 Commandments, and one of the least followed.
The framers of the monotheistic religion worried that people who crafted images of God might worship the idol instead of the deity. God should be in the heart, not in a statute.
Mohammed, some scholars say, also worried his image might become worshipped by his followers. Islam is about the glory of Allah, not the glory of the Prophet. Because of this, it’s become highly offensive among some Muslims to depict the Prophet at all.
Yet the overblown reaction to any depiction of the Prophet defeats the purpose of the reaction. Whenever an Islamist kills someone because they drew a picture of Mohammed, that Islamist is making a graven image of the Prophet.
The closed mental universe of the extremist has a great deal of difficulty with nuance.
Non-Muslims also want to know what the big deal is. They search the Web for the images. They question the relevancy of the campaign to hide his image. They publish more satirical cartoons.
Pictures of the Prophet have widely circulated in the past 48 hours. Islamists don’t understand the Streisand Effect. In the Internet age, any attempt to censor an image or cover up a story backfires. Such efforts inevitably lead to the widespread dissemination of the offending information.
Attacks on papers, people and places participating in the publication of pictures of the prophet Mohammed betrays the flaw in the Islamist theology. To shield the Prophet from criticism or satire venerates him in a way counter to Islam’s own reasoning.
The violence works, though. Major outlets refuse to show the image. The conversation around the Prophet and Islam becomes strained. People think twice before writing an article or publishing a cartoon they think might offend violent fanatics.
Charlie Hebdo will return. Google has floated them an absurd amount of cash to churn out the next issue. That’s a good thing. We need more dissenting voices.
But events like this don’t always produce more dissent. Many outlets, such as some of the most venerated old media organizations, cower. Violence and terror change the way we live our daily lives.
Events such as the attack on Charlie Hebdo throw people to the extremes. Some, such as Bill Donohue and the old media, will demure. They understand the upset the images cause, so they seek to avoid them. This will only increase.
Others, such as the vast majority of the world’s cartoonists, will take up the pen and continue satirizing. Artists will render more drawings of Mohammed. Not less. And they should. Free speech means that all ideas can duke it out in the public sphere.
Radical Islamists have an insecure and hypocritical view of Islam. They’re able to intimidate media outlets. But the open nature of the Web guarantees their actions will backfire.