Reflections on responsibility: Charlie Hebdo

You don’t need me to tell you any more about the horrific and tragic events of Paris. You’ve probably read enough, and formed your own conclusions about those dark moments, when freedom of speech and humour took the blows of extremism. The satirists’ pens of Charlie Hebdo were deemed by the perpetrators as too deadly to be allowed to continue sending up their version of religion.

But then, the employees of Charlie Hebdo had a habit of sending up other religious and political figures too – as well as your average, everyday Brit. That’s what they do.

A cartoon is a bloodless weapon. Its barbs lie in ideas, in putting pressure on inflated opinions, on stereotypes – on the fanatical oppressors who would like to silence those that stand for liberalism, for the freedom to interact across cultures.

The weapons that these murderers used, do not stand for Islam. They are not held up by every Muslim alive, and I’ll challenge anyone who says otherwise. Right now, Muslims across the world are condemning the atrocities that took place – though, as Alex Massie rightly pointed out, they have no need to do so. But somehow, silence has become synonymous with complicity. I’ve seen and heard enough gross generalizations and mudslinging in the hours that have passed since yesterday’s events, to know that once again the names of 1.6 billion people will have become tangled up with those who, in fact, actively seek their destruction more than anyone else.

There are days when social media is a gift, a weapon of information-dissemination for the greater good. When flight MH17 was brought down last summer, only minutes had passed before Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were flooded with screen-grabs of text and pictures taken from the profiles of Ukrainian separatists, to be used as evidence of what had taken place. The original posts were (as expected) subsequently deleted, but by then, there were already too many holes to plug. One tweet can become hundreds, thousands, within an hour.

But then there are what I’ve come to know as the spin-cycle events – when something kicks off, and events are carried forward through the arteries of social networking by the instantaneous decisions of those handling information thrust under their thumbs.
I’ve been there. I know how it feels, to react to something – pressing down on a tweet or retweet – before the little voice of conscious reasoning has had time to pipe up, to ask – “Reconsider?”

Given that yesterday’s horror took place as a direct blow against freedom of speech, I know this talk of self-censorship isn’t going to win me any favours. But it’s my opinion, based upon about 18 months’ worth of experience.

Last year was a shitter, on that I think we can all agree. One tragedy after another, with the summer in particular seeing some of the bloodiest and most mind-numbing events possible, spread out across the world, and thus onto social media. If these taught me anything about myself, it was that my reactions to breaking news – and the reactions of those around me – matter as much as the news itself. There are consequences, because there are lives behind every screen.

Yesterday, I picked up on the ongoing scenes in Paris via tweets from journalists, who in their turn had caught eye-witness accounts from the scene, or from various channels. It’s easy enough to get sucked into something when scrolling through a list or timeline. I felt that familiar chill in my fingertips, the tight nausea in my throat, and a desperate pressure behind the eyes. It was utterly essential that I get out what I could to my followers, to share what I was seeing –

– pressing down –
– until an image of a bullet-riddled police car landed on my timeline, and I pressed Retweet. And stopped.

I work with the police, in a civilian staff role. My colleagues are friends, people I sit beside to eat, drink with in bars. I know their families through Facebook.
I also follow, and am followed by, police officers on Twitter, albeit with less personal relations – but the fact is, they live through events such as this. Sometimes they die by them – as did Ahmed Merabet, the officer tasked with protecting the people who poked fun at his religion. Not that this meant a thing to the cowards who, brandishing Kalashnikovs, put him to death while he lay on the ground, unprotected.
I wonder if it will mean anything to the likes of Nigel Farage, with his “fifth column” theory on how extremism somehow equates with multiculturalism.

Looking around at my Twitter feed, at the lists I keep, I saw yet more and more disturbing images arrive, as reports filtered in. Most tweets were kept within the character limitations, and the words alone were enough to strike my mind silent, cold.
Experience. It’s taught me that at times like this, it’s best to back away, to keep still for a bit – to process, to mourn, to rage, alone. To allow others to do the same, or to follow and pass on as they wish … but to give them that freedom, too. Not everyone wants to have a graphic image arrive in their timeline, out of context.

In truth, it’s taken me this long to write about it because I had to wait to calm down. Yesterday, I was trembling with anger. The hypocrisy was astonishing – we managed a media blackout when it was the Islamic State beheadings, so how on Earth was the slaughter going on in Paris any different? The propaganda machine was in full swing, and we were throwing our weight behind it. I saw the clip of officer Merabet’s cold-blooded killing, turned into a Vine. Retweeted.
How is this humane?

The sad fact, social media has given us a double-edged blade. We’re as able to keep in touch with each other, with the world, with information that might otherwise be prohibited or inaccessible, as we are able to darken each other’s minds, and diminish the last moments of helpless people, by turning ongoing events into a cultivated drama for our feeds.

Graphic content. It has its uses: to imprint an image or scenario on the audience’s collective mind and memory. To shock us out of everyday  complacency. To leave an undeniable mark. But with its use comes the responsibility of acknowledging how singularly inhumane it is to reduce a person’s death to a blurred and bloodied frame. Their last moments caught, held, then spread out across a vast network of tweets and retweets, news channels – all for the gratification of…what? Who?
Only the bastards that began the atrocities. The ones who want to see us in fear, panic, discord. I saw plenty of people fall out on Twitter yesterday, over this and that detail. Meanwhile, people died. And their deaths were shared and witnessed countless times.

As we saw again with the print papers. Many front pages were dedicated to the cartoon satire that upheld freedom of speech, the right to josh anyone and everyone on this planet. Some went for an improvised version of this, in muted tones, to channel the aching sorrow, the outrage. And still others have chosen that final, barbarous image – the photograph of Merabet lying prone, defenceless, with his last moments slipping away.

Held on a front page, to then line a bin. A street. A cage.

I’m sorry. I know this probably an old argument, or it’ll seem out of place, among all the other more nuanced writings on this subject. But that man was somebody’s child, loved one, friend, colleague. Above all, he was human. The fact that he was a Muslim shouldn’t matter, really, but it has to be taken into account, because vacuous idiots want to drive the same nail through all those who follow the Islamic faith, nailing them to the same wall.

My beloved friend Nillu is a Muslim. This isn’t exactly the first thing to cross my mind whenever we talk. I know her for the person she is, the unique individual and writer. I’m sickened to say that I’m reminded of her faith more often when in defence of it, at times like this, when I fear for her right to exist as a human among others, rather than be talked about as a collective murderous whole. Which is what I keep seeing at the moment. Names, faces, lives, are being blurred out, just as surely as the satirical cartoons made at Charlie Hebdo were blurred out by certain news agencies yesterday, in tweeted pictures. Already appeasing.

We’ve got our wires crossed, here. Are we fighting the extremists, or doing their work for them, by turning on the people they claim to stand for – who want nothing to do with them – while giving idiots like Farage and Marine Le Pen access to our doubts and fears about being killed, to use for their own twisted ends? Printing stark images of murder, while stepping back from publishing the brave images of Charlie Hebdo?

Can we take a moment to breathe, and remember that there are real lives at stake here – real people, with families? They are our colleagues and friends, their children go to school with ours. No, we don’t have to support or even try to understand anyone’s religion that is not our own – goodness knows, there’s enough death and persecution and blaming to go around, in the name of any faith, just as surely as there is among those without any faith at all.

But we do have a responsibility to appreciate and support their rights as individuals with connections, voices. Pressure points. Hopes and dreams and secrets.

They are us. We’re taking care of each other, on and offline.
These are the things that extremists fear, more than anything.
That’s what I believe, anyway.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on responsibility: Charlie Hebdo

  1. 1stpeaksteve says:

    I often wonder how the old journalists feel when they see our version of news that we are given these days?

    I remember one story that popped up during the beheading spree a few months back. Of course it was a beheading. I thought to myself not again. An extremist!

    Then way at the bottom of another papers rendition of the event was a small fact. Yes, the woman was beheaded by her son. She was also dismembered. Which a story that read – Woman Dismembered by Son would have brought about a different level of interest for the media.

    Now, I just really investigate the story from as many sources as I can find. Better than being manipulated for ratings.

  2. dbp49 says:

    Thank you for a good honest look at a situation that is very awkward at the very least. I think the only people that are comfortable about talking about these situations are the same people you mentioned above who are just manipulating the event for their own ends. Meanwhile the regular decent folks can’t even bring themselves to talk about it because no matter what they say it seems like they’re defending one extremist group or another. I guess it really is at times like this that I can see the wisdom in that old adage, “Moderation in all things”. My heart truly goes out to all the innocents in this, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

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