Understanding Charlie Hebdo

On 7 January 2015, two men stormed the offices of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo. They murdered 12 people, including the five most famous and beloved cartoonists (one of whom was the editor) and two police officers, and injured 11 others, 5 seriously. Those are the basic facts of the tragedy, which you undoubtedly already know. But what you may not understand is why – beyond the horror of murder and mayhem – this event has touched every French person so deeply. As one internet meme says: “12 dead. 66 million wounded.” Why is Charlie Hebdo so important and iconic?

I’m not going to go into detail about the magazine – you can easily find all those facts in the news, the cartoons that many believe to be the reason for the massacre. What I want to do is try to offer a sort of analogy to help you understand how the French feel.

First, think of your three favorite comedians and satirists, whether late-night talk show hosts, stand-up comics, or TV stars. People who offer blistering, off-color attacks on religion, politics, and current events. People who make you think and laugh and cringe in recognition.

Now think of your two favorite cartoonists, artists who can express in a few sketched lines far more than a thousand words, creating images that encapsulate ideologies and events. Cartoons that mock and provoke and offend and hurt.

Now imagine that these five people somehow work together to publish a magazine, and that during their weekly editorial meeting, two men burst into the conference room and murder them along with seven other people. Imagine the horror of losing these people you love, these people you grew up reading, these people who use their freedom of speech to make fun of everyone and everything, who say what few people dare to say, and who died for the right to say it.

If you can imagine this, you can get some sense of what happened this week and how much it hurt the French people. I admit that as much as I love France and French, I didn’t know the names of the cartoonists and I don’t read Charlie Hebdo. I looked through an issue many years ago and it wasn’t for me. But it’s not about whether you agree with what they say; with apologies to Voltaire, it’s about defending to the death their right to say it.

Au peuple français : Je partage votre chagrin. Je suis navrée. Je suis Charlie.

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