It’s been a sad, sad week for freedom of speech. Not to mention freedom of the press. Because of their brave determination to skewer all sacred cows, ten French journalists and cartoonists are dead. As the world now knows, the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo was gunned down Wednesday by Islamic extremists convinced that cartoons poking fun at Muslim orthodoxy is cause enough for a death sentence. Not that Charlie Hebdo had a particular grudge against Islam. From all reports, this weekly satirical newspaper (a force on the French scene since 1969) is an equal opportunity mocker, lampooning political and religious figures across the spectrum. I gather this is a publication with more bite than we generally encounter in America, but attacking it seems something like issuing a fatwa against Mad Magazine.
Then, of course, there’s The Interview. Thank goodness Seth Rogen and company didn’t base their comic movie on two dimwitted TV journalists traveling to meet the Prophet Muhammad instead of Kim Jung Un. As it was, The Interview stirred up quite a hornet’s nest. From North Korea the movie elicited angry rhetoric, as well as a vindictive cyberattack on Sony Pictures. There were also threats of 9/11-style attacks on movie theatres screening the film. Unsurprisingly, major chains backed away from The Interview, which prompted the cancellation of its wide release on Christmas Day. Then suddenly Sony reversed itself, offering up The Interview to independent theatres like West L.A’s The Crest, which doubtless enjoyed this opportunity to trump better-heeled rivals by going where the majors feared to tread. Thereupon believers in free speech bravely flocked to a raunchy, dopey comedy solely intended for the too-young-for-primetime set. Next thing anyone knew, The Interview was all over various pay-per-view platforms. So Sony made money, while James Franco fans got a crash course in international geopolitics. According to the most recent stats I’ve seen, Sony apparently took in $31 million in video-on-demand in just over a week, making The Interview the studio’s top on-line film ever. So North Korea’s fury can perhaps be chalked up to the most lucrative sort of free advertising.
Unfortunately, what happened to Charlie Hebdo is the sort of P.R. no one wants. What startles me is that all this bloodshed came about because some words and cartoon images gave offense. To the perpetrators of these terrible acts, mass murder apparently seemed a fair trade-off for their own indignation. In a bizarre way, the killers are ascribing to the words of others a tremendous amount of power. For them, satirical cartoonists – wielders of pens and pencils – are too dangerous to live. They have not enough faith in their own rich tradition to be willing to fight words with words. Instead, they deem it necessary to vanquish those they disagree with by calling on far blunter weapons.
The great religions of the world all have their basis in language. As the Bible puts it, “In the beginning was the Word.” Sacred words, written on ancient scrolls in many languages, are of course subject to wide interpretation. Which means that a lot of words are expended on powerful disputes about God’s actual meaning. Words sent into battle over the words of others: that makes sense to me. Being killed for one’s writings and drawings—that just seems tragic.
I’m haunted by the words of a Frenchman who’s the political cartoonist for the international edition of the New York Times. Having just lost many of his friends and colleagues, he told an interviewer, “Without humor, we are all dead.” Alas, nothing seems very funny to me right now.