I can barely manage the strength to observe what others have observed so much better than I — that the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris are like looking into a petri dish to see that historical moment when Western civilization emerged out of the Dark Ages and began to have a modern consciousness.
As has been noted so poignantly elsewhere, there is no more complete expression of liberty than satire. The biting wit, the scathing ridicule, the taunting intent to provoke, the simple pleasure of laughing at someone else’s expense, these are the joys of the cartoonist. They ply their trade like grownup boys in a school yard, hoping to injure with word or image. Of course, we hold them sacred because along the way, the best of them illuminate a fundamental paradox or poke fun at a ridiculous human absurdity. The only thing that makes a joke funny, after all, is the kernel of truth that resides under its husky skin.
The modern Western mind, that which came into being in the 18th century through events like the French and American revolutions, differentiates between what sticks and stones do, and what words do, and it spends an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to figure out what is the appropriate response to each. This might be some definition of “justice” and the political expression of it is in minimizing government’s controlling role in picking winners and losers in the battle of ideas, even offensive ones. Incidentally, it also pushes religion to the sidelines when it comes to public sanctioning (or rewarding) in the civic sphere.
What the shooters in the Charlie Hebdo attacks did was to attempt to assert a controlling role in the battle of ideas … through the barrel of a gun. To my mind, this makes them medieval. Or do I mean fascist? Either way, in a world marked by increasing hyperconnectivity and the free flow of both knowledge and opinion, prognosis of how we’re all going to get along in the 21s century is not good. I am reminded that the surviving Tsarnaev brother is about to go on trial in Massachusetts for the Boston Marathon bombings, an equally nihilistic act determined to maim, and similarly perfumed with a whiff of religiosity. And then of course, there is the store manager in the Lindt shop in Sydney, who died a hero to many, but too young and also at the wrong end of a gun.