Je Suis Me: On Charlie Hebdo, Expression, and Empathy

75874_990x742-cb1390846538IT WAS AFTERNOON when I found myself stranded on Kearney Street last Wednesday, in front of the San Francisco French Consulate. Although the 35 Muni bus had just rambled up, its cold commuter breeze rustling the laces of my shoes, I remained planted on the curb, unable to tear my eyes away from the scene unfolding in front of me. In the wake of the horrific violence that had unfolded in Paris just hours earlier, thick and stinking as an oil spill, bouquets had begun to bloom by the Consulate’s glass doors. Their demure petals belied the outrage that contorted the faces of the crowd. Yes, hands were clasped, tears were shed, and embraces were exchanged. But anger was decidedly the crowd’s common denominator.

When that crackling indignation found release in the chant Je suis Charlie! Je suis Charlie!, I dusted off the shoddy pronunciation I half remembered from high school French and added my voice to the outcry. I’d never heard of Charlie Hedbo before the shooting. It’s not in my nature to bandwagon, if only because I’m blessed with the kind of friends who actually follow the news beyond human interest stories, and call me out on my emotionally-driven, occasionally under-informed knee-jerk liberalism. But in the warm mourning candlelight, surrounded by outrage and ache that had become indistinguishable, chanting felt right. Although no one would ever call my articles on “Ways to Winter-Proof Your Workout Gear” incendiary, although the closest I come to cartooning is doodling on passed out party-goers, I fancy myself a creative type. If we writers wouldn’t stand up for free speech in the face of fear, who would, right? It’s our responsibility.

You know what else is a writer’s responsibility? Research. And I wish I’d done mine. After I’d disentangled myself from the fever pitch of Kearney Street and made my way home, I looked up the publication I’d spent the last hour aligning myself with, and winced. There’s nothing anyone could ever write or draw or say that could make murder OK. There’s no conceivable justification for extremism, terrorism, and violence. There is no caveat to the sadness I feel for the journalists and police officers and facilities manager whose lives were ripped from them before their stories were finished, there’s no end to the tears that heavy our hearts and blur the ink on our pages when we think of their loved ones. And yet, I’m not Charlie.

I know I’m not Charlie when I scroll through brightly-colored cover art of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, split apart and sodomized, all massive nose and wild eyes, cruel caricatures dressed up as satire. I know I’m not Charlie when I read about vandalized mosques and it dawns on me that the perpetrators are the very same people who wax poetic on freedom of expression. I know I’m not Charlie when I learn about the ways in which Muslim North African immigrants have long been discriminated against in France. And I know I’m not Charlie as I realize the hypocrisy of a publication that claims to make fun of everyone equally, yet undeniably lampoons Muslims most of all, a practice that seems not only unfair but downright threatening in light of rising anti-Islam sentiment in Europe.

It’s understandable that upon learning about tragedies like this one, our first reaction is solidarity. Solidarity is not only comforting but it’s fairly easy too, particularly when all it takes is a hashtag, or perhaps adding a pen to a free speech memorial if you’re a stubborn Twitter-less holdout (#yesalldinosaurs). What’s far more complicated, controversial and necessary is unpacking the political and cultural causes — and ramifications — of acts of terrorism. Reflecting on what catchy slogans really signify, and making peace with the messy, but not mutually-exclusive, twin tasks of abhorring violence and mourning its victims while inherently disagreeing with the rhetoric their livelihood perpetrated.

Can we believe in and defend free speech, but think there are certain lines that are dangerous, defamatory and just plain not cool to cross? Can we detest terrorism while remaining wary of the potential war-mongering, scapegoating and separation that fighting against it all too often entails? Can we offer comfort, support and strength to those suffering from unspeakable tragedy, while bearing in mind that solidarity, while a beautiful theory, is often in practice misconstrued as a means of ostracizing?

I recently came across an article celebrating the life of slain police officer Ahmed Merabet, supposedly a practicing Muslim of North African descent, who died defending a publication that regularly mocked his beliefs. That act of selfless, transcendent courage struck a chord with me and the many others who had already popularized #JeSuisAhmed. I began to re-post but stopped halfway through. Admiring Ahmed is undeniable; colonizing his identity is lazy. Ahmed’s story humbles me, breaks my heart in ways I can’t yet even articulate. But that doesn’t mean I can let it do the heavy lifting of sifting through moral ambiguity for me. I’m not Ahmed. I am sad. I am confused. I am scared.

Je suis me, and I’m still figuring things out.

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