The death threats come with the territory. Since the advent of the internet,
people around the world who are disgusted or enraged by my cartoons have
been able to threaten to kill me via email. Over the years these have included
Muslims, Zionists, Republican Americans, a few angry Chomskyians,
Catholics, Russians, some Serbs, and, I imagine, a large number of teenage
boys locked in their bedrooms "having a laugh". Hitherto I’ve tended, in my
turn, to laugh them off, joking that a death threat by email doesn’t count: it
needs a letter sent to my home address containing one of my loved ones’ ears
to be taken seriously.
However, after the murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists Cabu, Wolinski,
Tignous and the paper’s editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier, who signed
himself "Charb", there’s a terrible temptation to stop laughing. Although that,
I believe, would be a fundamental error.
Laughter, it needs to be shouted, is one of the things humans do best, mostly
because it makes us feel better. I’ve been convinced for years that laughter is a
hardwired evolutionary survival mechanism that helps humans navigate our
way through life without going mad with existentialist terror. That’s why we
laugh at all those terrifying things like death, sex, other people and the
disgusting stuff that pours out of our bodies on a daily basis.
Moreover, we’re very very good at laughing at those who place themselves
above us, either as our leaders or intending to impose their beliefs in order to
make everyone else exactly like them. That’s the basis of the craft I shared
with my murdered colleagues in Paris. This universal capacity to use mockery
as a form of social control is one of the main things that makes us human.
Crucially, it’s also in defiance of the primary need of the powerful to be taken
seriously, often against all the external evidence of their innate absurdity.
In fact I suspect that throughout History that’s how political and religious
power gained their original heft, by terrorising everyone else into suppressing
their giggles at the endless cavalcade of priest-kings, emperors, thrones,
courts, burning bushes, virgin births, hidden imams, flying horses and all the
rest of it.
But even then, there appears to be something exquisitely intolerable to the
serious mind about mockery when it’s visual. Largely this is due to the way
the visual is consumed: rather than nibbling your way through text, however
incendiary, a cartoon floods the eyes, gets swallowed whole and often makes
the recipient choke. Worse, cartoons should be seen more as a kind of
sympathetic magic than anything else: we steal our subjects’ souls by
recreating them through caricature and then mock them in narratives of our
own devising. Worst of all, we then pretend that it’s all just a good natured
laugh: it is a laugh, but often a cruel and mocking one. It is, in short,
assassination without the blood.
"Without the blood" is the key phrase. In a weirdly indefinable but obvious
way, satirists can only really function when it’s hideously clear the objects of
their mockery are much more powerful and with a far deadlier armoury than
the satirists, as was demonstrated with such foul clarity in Paris this
But is that entirely true? Almost nine years ago, when the Danish cartoons
storm erupted, I argued publicly that I thought Jylands Posten had been wrong
to commission cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed, as I suspected they were
just another salvo in the paper’s decades long campaign against immigrants,
many of whom were Muslim, most of them poor and powerless, some of them
cleaning the toilets in Jylands Posten’s offices. I was roundly condemned by
many for betraying free speech. Maybe I was, but claiming the greatest
freedom is to say whatever you want about anyone whomsoever you choose is
ultimately as ludicrous as demanding that freedom from being offended - from
being upset, in other words - trumps every other human right. On that
occasion the blood flowed in gallons, but mostly unnoticed or unreported as it
gushed exclusively from over 100 Muslims, shot dead by Muslim police or
soldiers on the streets of Muslim countries after they’d been fomented into
rioting by Muslim clerics eager to flex their political muscles.
This time it’s cartoonists’ blood that’s been shed. Yet however much they may
identify themselves as victims of mockery, those cartoonists’ murderers have
clearly also identified themselves as on the side of the power, electing to act as
agents avenging the hurt feelings of the most Powerful Being in The Universe.
Don’t forget that demanding either respect or silence from everyone else is
one of the most common abuses of power going.
But don’t fool yourselves this is about Islam. It was the Islamists’ secularist
enemy Bashar al-Assad who got his thugs to break the fingers of the Syrian cartoonist Ali
Farzat four years ago. It was probably a Mossad double-agent who murdered
the Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali in London in 1987. The British cartoonists’
names filling the Gestapo Death List were just another manifestation, throughout History,
of how hateful laughter is to despots. Which is why, now more than ever, we mustn’t stop
laughing this latest bunch of murderous clowns to scorn.