On the "Charlie Hebdo" killings, for British Journalism Review / by Rich Hobbs

I’ve no idea how many people died violent, premature deaths during the

course of January this year. But I’m sure almost every single one of them went

unreported. And even if you narrow the death toll down solely to people killed

by the actions of so-called Islamists, you can safely assume the vast majority

of those deaths went unreported too, whether it was men and women killed in

defence of the Syrian city of Koubani or anybody else unfortunate enough to

live under the necrocratic tyranny of the self-styled Islamic State which

straddles the geopolitical ruins of Iraq and Syria.

If you narrow it down even further - to people killed by the actions of so-

called Islamists on a single day in January this year - we’ll never know the

names of most of those murdered people. Worse, there’s not even agreement

on the number of people who were killed by Boko Haram in Baga in northern

Nigeria on 7th January. Was it 2000, according one local government official,

or 150, as claimed by the central Nigerian government? Or none at all, as the

head of the regional government insisted afterwards? Remoteness, the fog of

war, the claims and counter claims of rival propagandists make the truth

almost impossible to grasp - almost as impossible to grasp as two of the three

alternative realities on offer from Baga. Whatever the precise number of

corpses, it’s standard for the horror, pity and disgust to be informed more

qualitative factors than quantitative ones. Right up to when you lose count of

the body count, that is. It was the failed seminarian and atheist mass-murderer

Josef Stalin who observed that one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is

just a statistic.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why the murders at the offices of Charlie

Hebdo in Paris on 7th January echoed round the world, and continue to

reverberate: the size of the horror is graspable, and we know the names. They

also took place in the heart of a Western capital city teeming with millions of

people. Indeed, the murder of police officer Ahmed Merabet, a Muslim of

Algerian descent like his murderers Said and Cherif Kouachi, was caught live

on CCTV. Mustapha Ourrad, a copy taker at Charlie Hebdo, was also of

Algerian descent, and was also murdered by the Kouachi brothers, with what

surviving witnesses described as calm, execution-style deliberation. Also

murdered were Frédéric Boisseau, Charlie Hebdo’s building maintenance

man; Franck Brinsolaro, another police officer assigned as a bodyguard to the

magazine’s editor-in-chief; Elsa Cayat, a psychoanalyst who was also Jewish

and the only woman killed in the atrocity, though the Kouachis specifically

spared the lives of other women in the room; Bernard Maris, a Professor of

Economics and shareholder in Charlie Hebdo; and Michel Renaud, a 69 year

old French journalist due to guest edit a future edition of the magazine.

And yet what made the Charlie Hebdo killings apparently so exquisitely,

exceptionally horrific was the five other victims, who were all cartoonists.

This, it seemed, was a brutal and bloody assault on laughter. Which meant it

was also an assault on the very fact of being human itself.

Laughter, after all, is one of the things we’re best at (along with killing each

other, as it happens). That’s because laughter is a hardwired evolutionary

survival tool that stops us going mad with existentialist terror at the horrors

life throws at us. These include death, sex, shit, our friends, our leaders and

our enemies. And while anthropologists have claimed that it’s uniquely human

to use laughter as a means of social control through mockery, we’re never as

unique as we’d like to think. Our genetic cousins chimpanzees laugh to tell

other chimps they’re only playing, an important consideration when one

chimp jumps playfully on top of another chimp but doesn’t want immediately

to be killed. So laughter, while it can be cruel, aggressive, exclusionary,

taunting and bullying, is also playful. Although it’s often deadly serious, the

point is it’s never serious enough to be deadly. That’s because, according to

the countless nuanced rules which govern how humans interact with each

other and demonstrate one another’s current power status, you’re meant to get

the joke. Satire in particular fails or flourishes around this point.

But the ultimate counterploy of the mockee - whether it’s a despotic

government or a picked-upon kid in a playground - is always to grab back the power

advantage, refuse to get the joke and kill the mocker to shut them up. In other words,

just hunker back into the comfort of your chimp brain and pretend you didn’t hear the play

signal. And that, in a nutshell, is what happened in Charlie Hebdo’s offices on 7th

January 2015. Although, as you’d expect, it was far far more complicated than that.

Nonetheless, without stretching the point too far, there’s a hint of the inherent

violence in all humour if you consider that the murdered cartoonists - whose

names we know - were all famous not for their names, but for their noms de

plume: Charb was Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier;

Tignous’s real name was Bernard Verlhac; Philippe Honoré and Georges Wolinski

both signed themselves, like Giles or Low, with just their surnames,

while Jean Cabut shortened his already shortened name to Cabu.

This has long been the fashion among cartoonists, exceptionally among

journalists. And while it may be the only point of connection between, say,

Trog or JAK and Stalin and Trotsky, cartoonists’ noms de plume are a lot

closer to noms de guerre than we like to think. Satire, and particularly visual

satire, has always had more in common with political violence than stand-up

comedy. It’s dark, primal voodoo, sympathetic magic designed to do the

victim harm. And it gets even deeper with the magic associated with names

and namecalling, changed names and the sacredness of the unnameable: not

speaking the name of god was - is - as powerful a taboo among many religions

as portraying the Prophet Muhammad remains within a branch of Islam.

But even if you ignore all the cultural and anthropological baggage, at its heart

visual satire is still assassination without the blood. That’s my job as I

understand it, and it was also the job of my murdered colleagues. There’s a

defining grimness at the heart of it, although once again it’s important to

remember that bit about being without the blood. Because the purpose of our

craft, however dark, is to leaven it all with laughter. And it works because

your body releases all those lovely endorphins when you laugh which quite

simply make you feel better. That’s why cartoonists tend to be loved far more

than assassins.

Two of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in particular were deeply and widely

loved, and heavy with fame and honours as a consequence. Wolinski was

awarded a Légion d'honneur in 2005, while Cabu was famous - very famous -

among other things for regular featuring drawing cartoons on French

children’s TV. Imagine Rolf Harris being deliberately gunned down by

masked assassins - but a good Rolf Harris, in his pomp and before his

downfall - and you begin to creep towards what these murders actually mean

in France. Imagine, if it’s easier, Giles being murdered by terrorists. Go back a

couple of generations and try to imagine the same happening to Illingworth or

Low or Vicky. Or even Heath Robinson. (All of whom, incidentally, were on

the Gestapo Death List, due for summary execution had the Nazis invaded


These cartoonists weren’t just famous and loved, they were old too. Honoré

was 74, Cabu 76 and Wolinski 80. That should tell us something else about

Charlie Hebdo. These were men of the 68 generation, whose sensibilities were

informed as much by Surrealism and Situationism as by France’s much

vaunted Secularist tradition. That places them not so much within journalism

than as part of the European artistic Avant Garde, home to composers like

KarlHeinz Stochkhausen, who described the 9/11 attacks as "the biggest work

of art there has ever been".

Their spiritual ancestors would also include the Surrealist film director Luis

Bunuel, who was so convinced his debut film "Un Chien Andalou" would

trigger a riot he stood behind the screen at the premiere with his pockets filled

with rocks to throw at the audience if they turned nasty. His next film, "L’Age

d’Or", did succeed in provoking riots with its final reel depicting the dissolute

roues from de Sade’s "120 Days of Sodom" leaving the scene of their orgies

accompanied by Jesus Christ. The film was banned, but the purpose all along

had been to shock and provoke authority into reaction.

Forty years after Bunuel’s films, Situationism, a weird hybrid of Surrealism

and Trotskyism, in its turn sought to spark Revolution by creating a "situation"

through provocation. (Situationism only really took seed in Britain in

Malcolm McLaren’s Sex Pistols, Tony Wilson’s Factory Records and the

increasingly bizarre contrarianism of the Revolutionary Communist Party’s

Brendan O’Neill and Claire Fox at Spiked Online and the Institute of Ideas.)

Then add to all that how the magazine had been born, as an act of defiance to

the reaction of an instigating provocation. Charlie Hebdo’s immediate parent

was Hara-Kiri Hebdo, which was banned by the French Government in 1970

after it had mocked the death of Charles de Gaulle by comparing it to a recent

disco fire which had killed 149 people: "Tragic Ball in Colombey [...les-Deux-

Eglises, de Gaulle’s home]: 1 dead."

It was, of course, a funny, provocative and ironic gag to name the reborn

magazine after the dead de Gaulle. Irony is woven into the DNA of humour in

general and satire in particular. Think of Swift’s "A Modest Proposal". In the

babel of "whataboutery" that came in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo

massacre, while many people claimed the magazine’s covers had been

increasingly racist in tone, its defenders, on top of saying Charlie Hebdo

attacked absolutely everyone, insisted that those covers were ironic. But

ironies get lost, deliberately or otherwise, and always have done. Three

centuries ago, Daniel Defoe wrote "The Shortest Way with Dissenters" as an

ironic attack on growing Tory hostility to Dissenters, concluding his satirical,

sarcastic defence of the Church of England with the line "Now let us Crucify

the Thieves!" He was pilloried and imprisoned by magistrates who thought (or

claimed to think) he was being serious. Then again, there’s no evidence Julius

Streicher, editor of the cartoon heavy anti-Semitic hate sheet Der Sturmer,

ever for a single second contemplated the irony defence at his Nuremburg

trial, at the end of which he was hanged.

A professional translator friend of mine from Northern Ireland, where they

know about these kinds of thing, is far more familiar with Charlie Hebdo than

many, and emailed me the following observation, invoking Streicher:

"The Mohammed pics remind me of the Garvaghy Road - someone's told us

we can't do this so we have to. I could mail you some scans of an old Hara-

Kiri from about 1976 but we'd probably have the rozzers round. However...

[the] Charia Hebdo issue [CH’s defiant response to the bombing of their

offices in 2011] ... looks to me like South Thanet Ukip had some bright ideas

after a night in the Dog and Duck, and asked Julius Streicher if he could do

anything with them. That's just me."

So. Do you get it, or don’t you? Because the more you consider Charlie

Hebdo and its aftermath, the thicker and more tangled the ironies become.

Henri Roussel, the now 80-year- old founder of Hara-Kiri wrote an article in

Nouvel Observateur denouncing Charbonnier for making his defiance of the

jihadis who’d bombed his offices so provocative he deliberately invited the

murder of Roussel’s old friend Wolinski. The editors of Nouvel Observateur

subsequently felt compelled to justify publishing the article in the name of free expression.

Meanwhile, a 16 year old schoolboy in France was arrested for posting on Facebook a parody

of a Charlie Hebdo cover which had originally shown bullets flying through a

copy of the Quran into a turbanned figure with the headline "The Quran is

Shit"; the parody showed bullets passing through the original cover into the

body of a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist.

Then there’s the irony of a satirical magazine receiving a million euro subsidy

from the state it was created to attack (that’s free expression for you). Or the

further irony of some of the world’s grislier leaders "marching" in support of

Charlie Hebdo, including a representative of Saudi Arabia, two days after Raif

Badawi received the first 50 lashes of his 1000 lashes and 10 year prison

sentence for "insulting Islam". Also present were Binyamin Netanyahu, whose

Israeli government arrested and imprisoned Palestinian cartoonist Mohammed

Saba’aneh for five months in 2013 for "being in contact with a hostile

organisation", and Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority is

investigating the same cartoonist as I write this, for a sympathetic cartoon of

the Prophet Muhammad published in a Ramallah newspaper.

I very nearly drew something similar for The Guardian two days after the

murders. My cartoon was going to show Muhammad with one hand covering

his face in despair, the other stroking his cat Muezza, and wearing a "Not In

My Name" t-shirt. Given the sensitivities involved, I emailed Alan Rusbridger

with the idea a good 36 hours before I’d need to start work on it, and it was

only after very lengthy deliberations at the highest levels of the paper,

including long phone conversations between myself and Jonathan Freedland,

that it was finally decided to go with something else. That was another

cartoon, of me slumped on my drawing board and describing the first cartoon

but admitting my loved ones slightly baulked at the idea of me dying to afford

the readers a wry smile.

I entirely respect The Guardian’s decision, which was reached after a great

deal of careful and, I suspect, agonising thought. One reason for their decision

was that they’d already run an editorial explaining why they weren’t going to

publish previous Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Muhammad; they also, like

Roussel, saw no profit (and right now I won’t ask you to excuse the pun) in

ramping up and widening the provocation. Having discussed the implications

of producing my first planned cartoon with my family, I also subsequently

discovered that, despite initially agreeing to me proceeding, our children, both

in their twenties, became physically ill with anxiety at what might befall me if

I had. (Although, to his credit, our son did email me to say that if I was going

to be assassinated, could I make sure it was him who did it. This, incidentally,

was a joke.)

The hundreds of online posters who then accused me and The Guardian of

unspeakable cowardice and appeasement in not drawing Muhammad seemed

oblivious to the further ironies of their denunciations being anonymous (you

know, like in those bastions of free expression, Nazi Germany and the Soviet

Union). Perhaps they don’t care. They certainly seem indifferent to my

welfare, as it became clear to me that one bunch of masked maniacs would be

happy to kill me for what I might draw, while another pack of idiots, digitally

masked this time, were berating me for what I hadn’t drawn and demanding I

be prepared to die to further their geo-political agenda. Though in baying for

reprisals against an entire faith group in revenge for killings by its individual

members, my detractors were unconsciously endorsing what we might term

the "Kristallnacht Protocol".

Anyway, the cartoon I actually regret not drawing wasn’t that one; it was the

one of all those world leaders who’d boldly claimed "Je Suis Charlie", a week

later holding up signs reading "Je Suis King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia".

Still, as we should expect nothing from our leaders beyond bitter ironies

sliding effortlessly into stinking hypocrisy, there’s no reason why this

shouldn’t apply to our prospective leaders either. These include the masters of

the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists’ murderers, who’s mission is to make everyone

on earth the same as them (something denounced rather eloquently by

Jonathan Swift in "Tale of a Tub"). A week after the killings I wrote in my

regular column in Tribune:

"To my eyes [these murders] look most like a mafia hit against soft targets

sending a simple message. Moreover, I suspect the message wasn’t even

addressed to "The West", but to al Qaeda’s greatest rivals, Islamic State.

These were showcase killings to demonstrate that bin Laden’s old mob were

still in the game, via a global promo video (courtesy of Western TV) aimed at

recruiting all those confused and angry young people locked in their bedrooms

cruising the internet and, appalled by the actions of the West, being tempted

into opting for IS’s brand of holy barbarism instead of AQ’s."

Interestingly, Tariq Ali came to the same conclusion in a piece for the London

Review of Books, likewise recognising in this whole affair that things are both

deeper and shallower, simpler and infinitely more complicated than they

appear. Just like a cartoon can trigger many different responses in different

circumstances targetting receptors both deep and hidden in our psyches or as

shallow as the sweat on our furious faces.

In that light, I’d go further and insist this atrocity wasn’t even about cartoons.

In truth, and eternally, it was about totalitarianism, whether secular or

religious (and I can’t tell the difference); it was about totalitariarism’s

instinctive intolerance of laughter mocking its innate absurdity; it was about

the lumbering, ludicrous thug in the kindergarten playground who comes over

and thumps you just for looking at them, and for whom absolutely anything

they choose will be offensive whenever they choose it to bed, and will

therefore justify them in doing the most offensive thing anyone ever can.

Which, should we be tempted to forget, is killing someone else, the eternal

prerogative of the tyrant. And every joke, as Orwell observed, is a tiny

revolution, a little act of defiance and resistance, and off it goes again.

I believe both the World and my profession will recover from this, as will

mockery, satire and the giving and receiving of offence, and probably very

quickly. The dead, however, will remain dead. Although it was their memory I

betrayed the week following the massacre. In its immediate aftermath, I found

myself besieged by the media, doing a great deal of TV and radio, usually

saying exactly what I’d said already. By the next Tuesday, I thought I’d found

refuge at a day long meeting of a Wildlife Conservation Charity of which I’m

a trustee. However, when I turned my phone back on afterwards, there were

texts from the Today Programme, Sky News, Newsnight, 5Live and LBC all

wanting me to fill their dead air with my response to the Charlie Hebdo

survivors’ issue. I deleted them all, and silently concluded that if they couldn’t

do without me they could always turn off their transmitters and give us the rest

of us a break.

But then the cartoonist within me kicked back in. I should, I now realise, have

gone on all those platforms, pointed to the magazine’s cover of Muhammad

holding his "Je Suis Charlie" sign (out of shot, inevitably) and said "This is

scandalous! I’ve never seen anything so offensive! These people call

themselves satirists and they produce this kind of mawkish shit? They

should’ve had Muhammad dancing on the graves laughing "Those lippy

Froggie Cunts had it fucking coming!"* Then, in faux surprise, I would have

said, "Oh! Sorry! Didn’t you want that much Free Expression?"

But it’s always had its limits, as any idiot could have told you from the

beginning. My job is to stretch them as far as they’ll go; they pushed them til

they broke.

*I’ve since been told Charlie Hebdo’s first response, within hours of the

massacre, was a mock up of the cover that got Hara-Kiri banned, headlined:

"Tragic Ball in Paris: 12 Dead"