So now it is the cartoonists’ turn. The attack, on Wednesday morning, on Charlie Hebdo, the oldest and most respected satirical newspaper in France, has caused a tremendous shock – in France and everywhere. Some of the most renowned French cartoonists were killed : Charb, Cabu, Wolinski, Tignous, all household names that have made us all laugh throughout the years. In total, twelve people died when two heavily armed Ninja-style gunmen broke into the weekly news conference at the paper’s head office, and called out the names of the cartoonists one by one before shooting them. Their “crime’’ was well known : they had drawn and published cartoons ridiculing Islam, like they did and had done for all other religions – as a matter of fact, the Catholic church was possibly the single most frequent target of their ferocious pen. There is probably no such thing as national identity – but if there is, then the deeply rooted French tradition of irreverence and satire, of fierce irony against all powers, especially political and religious, would be a good contender. Charlie Hebdois a proud and fearless heir of that tradition.
The other element that comes to mind, naturally, is the attack on freedom of expression. Not that freedom of expression should be unlimited ; but while human beings have inalienable rights to be respected, ideas and beliefs do not have such rights. The mere fact of being held sacred by some does not entitle a belief system to be venerated by all. Your God might not be mine – and I might have none at all. Why should we be bound by your convictions ? Why should we have to revere what you revere ? Religion is not in and of itself entitled to a blanket immunity from criticism and questioning.
But beyond an attack on freedom of expression and freedom of the press, Wednesday’s attack should also – and perhaps even more – be seen as an attack on humour, on irony – on the very possibility to laugh at ideas and beliefs. The Danish cartoons saga some years ago already showed it very clearly : what these demented killers accept least of all is not so much criticism of their religion (if their belief system can still be considered a religion) but its satire : laughing at it is far worse, in their eyes, than disparaging it. No wonder : while a criticism upholds the seriousness of the belief, and lets its venerability in a way stay untouched, humour and satire simply deflate the bloated balloon of one’s ego locked up in it. It goes further than criticism, because it not only shows the unacceptable or incoherent aspects of a given doctrine, it also mocks the often unbearable self-righteousness of those who hold it. Satire, as we know since Aristophanes, pierces the self-importance of fools, and pokes fun at their hubris, their belief that they are somehow better, truer, more divine or more holy, than others.
Satire is a quintessentially human art– human in its avowedly humble recognition of our possible failings and of the fallability of our beliefs. It forces us to humility, and to constantly examine and question our convictions : we are not gods, nor are we His spokespeople. So humour is far more deadly (no pun intended) than a straight critique : it attacks not just the merits of the belief itself, but also the over-inflated ego of those who hold it, their desire for power, as well as their fake holiness. This is why Charlie Hebdo targeted religions more than other power-holders, such as politicians : bigots are insufferable in their cheap, phoney, self-created aura of sacredness. Ridicule hence becomes infinitely devastating and unbearable to such self-righteous idiots : it takes a hit at their rigid hubris, at their absolute certainty of being right, of being the spokespeople of God himself. Being criticised is manageable to idiots – being mocked is not. Cartoons are a form of anti-power, a resistance against all forms of power, and all forms of arrogance. You don’t become a cartoonist if you plan to rule a country, or to become a preacher. You don’t draw cartoons if you don’t deeply believe in humanity, in all its possible failings, and all its possible nobility.
Therein lies the other reason for the visceral hatred these despicable lunatics harboured against cartoonists : they simply cannot stand the generosity and the humanity that satirical cartoons stand for. Precisely because cartoons laugh at arrogance and hubris, and bring us back to our common humanity, they manifest a deep generosity toward, and yes, even a form of tenderness for, things human. But the coward killers think they are above that – they are divine messengers and avengers. They hate humanity and humans in general, and feel threatened by any form of human goodness, friendship or generosity. Kierkegaard famously analysed the devil, or, as he calls it, the demonic : the devil is the one who closes himself in the vacuity of his own bloated, conceited self, and who feels threatened by any form of communication, and any form of goodness. It is not just that he does not want to be friends with anyone, it is that he cannot stand the idea of anyone being friends or laughing with anyone. The messianic avenger, or the demonic, simply does not laugh. This is why Kierkegaard says the demonic is boring : he might be violent, coward, demented.... but that’s only to hide his essential inner void, and the fact that he is utterly boring, and has to resort to violence as the only means of attracting attention to his pathetic self. The cartoonists laugh, make laugh, and love laughter : they are fundamentally generous and loving in their public stance to the world. The demonic hates the world and all humans in it : he thinks of himself outside, or above. The contemptible attackers on the cartoonists were nothing short of demonic.
Steve Bell, a cartoonist for the Guardian, told the BBC on Wednesday : “We’ve got to stand up for the right to take the piss out of these monsters, these idiots, these fools, these posturing maniacs who strut around in their black gear as a kind of death cult trying to frighten us all”. Indeed, we might be sad today, but hell, Rira bien qui rira le dernier.