On a cold Wednesday morning in Paris, 3 gunmen entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French magazine that satirized public figures and morals. After they left, 12 people were dead, including police officers, one visitor, a maintenance worker and 4 cartoonists, one the editor-in-chief. It must have been planned in advance; the shooting occurred during the morning editorial meeting where many of the principals would be in one room.
It’s the worst attack in decades, some say since the 1800s. French President Holland said it was a,”…terrorist attack of the most extreme barbarity.”
As I write this, no one has claimed responsibility, though recent news reports 2 brothers suspected of the shootings have ties to Al-Qaeda.
Charlie Hebdo was no stranger to controversy. In 2006, they reprinted cartoons that lampooned the prophet Mohammed from a Danish newspaper. They were put onto an extremist “hit list,” members vowing to revenge the blasphemy.
I confess I never read the newspaper though I was aware of the controversy that often surrounded the publication and know the work of some of the cartoonists. Covers of the journal are displayed in street magazine kiosks, some of questionable taste even to my centrist-liberal eyes. A recent cover for the holiday season presented a cartoon of a smiling Virgin Mary, legs apart, giving birth—literally—to a grinning Christ Child.
Not what most of us would think of as a traditional image amongst the snow covered landscapes and silent nights with a single shining star on our holiday cards.
What struck me most when I first learned of the attack was, “How American!” The live feeds on TV with police, politicians and reporters commenting on the tragedy, updating details, and re-broadcasting the amateur videos smacked of the coverage in the wake of Columbine, Sandy Hook and other horrific shootings. What was missing was the usual newsroom round table debates about gun control. It’s not an issue here in France. The paramount issue here is freedom of expression.
The most precious right any democracy can offer is the freedom to say what you want, to voice opposing opinions without getting shot. Freedom comes not from censorship but with an open policy of contradictory views, engaging in debate, weighing opinions and speaking your mind. In Paris, this is the stuff of daily life. Over an espresso or a calvados in a local café men and woman, cigarettes hanging out of curled lips, hands waving around their heads, debate the issues of the day, stamp and scream and, upon occasion, storm out. But the next day everyone returns, shake hands, kiss each other on opposite cheeks, buy each other coffees and begin the debate all over again. It’s part of the culture, the other kind of bread they feed upon.
The irony is that with these shootings, a stronger solidarity is built between disparate groups that may not have occurred before. Fear disappears. Especially with the press, there is a worldwide sisterhood and brotherhood that is iron clad, stone strong. And for myself, as a cartoonist, who knows first hand the power of pictures, this tragedy only solidifies my kinship to artists I’ve never met. In so-called primitive societies, it’s the jester or trickster that plays the fool but also holds up the looking glass to show us as we really are. We are the buffoons who cry out, “The King has no clothes!” We clowns are necessary. It only intensifies my resolve to hold fast the freedom of drawing what I want, lifting up each rock to expose vermin to light and lampooning what needs to be unmasked.
Whether you like the cartoons or not, whether you question the taste of the satire, whether you think the images and words went too far, we must keep a free hand in expressing our views and opinions. It’s the only way a truly free society can function. France understands this. The rest of the world must also. The cartoonists and journalists at Charlie Hebdo named names and called a fool and fool.
I am a fool.
I am Doug.
But I’m also Charlie.
Doug Cushman is a former Redding artist and author who lives and works in Paris. He was born in Springfield, Ohio, and moved to Connecticut with his family at the age of 15. In high school he created comic books lampooning his teachers, selling them to his classmates for a nickel apiece. Since 1978, he has illustrated and/or written more than 100 books for children and collected a number of honors, including a Reuben Award for Book Illustration from the National Cartoonists Society, New York Times Children’s Books Best Sellers, and the New York Public Library’s Best 100 Books of 2000. He enjoys hiking, kayaking and cooking (and eating!). Learn more at his website, doug-cushman.com.