“Nous sommes Charlie” (We are Charlie) was a trending hashtag on social media after January 7, 2015, the day a French satirical newspaper called “Charlie Hebdo” was attacked by three gunmen killing twelve people, including four famous France cartoonists.
Maybe you would ask who Charlie is and why he became so popular. Well, Charlie is now the symbol of Freedom of speech. “Charlie Hebdo” (Weekly Charlie) is the name of that satirical newspaper whose editorial board was decimated by terrorists because of their drawings. The paper editor, Stephane Charbonnier (Charb) was killed along with three others well-known French cartoonists, Cabu, Charb and Wolinski.
As a journalist, this slaughter horrified me because I couldn’t believe that people would be killed over freedom of speech in a Western country in 2015. It also saddens me as an individual because I practically “grew up” with one of the victims, the Jewish cartoonist Georges Wolinski. I discovered him 17 years ago while I was in High School in Haiti. Since then I was addicted to his work. Wolinski made me laugh and made me think. His drawings and humorous dialogues remain forever etched in my mind. Wolinski died at 80 years old.
After the attack against “Charlie Hebdo”, the world unanimously condemned this crime against freedom of speech. Even President Obama expressed his sympathy to the French people. Cartoonists around the world drew their feelings about the awful killing. This was not just an attack on a French newspaper, but against the whole press corporation. The message sent by terrorists was clear: if we get offended by what you publish or broadcast, we can and we will silence you. After the carnage, the terrorists reportedly shouted “Allahu akbar!” and “We’ve just killed Charlie!”
In fact, it was not the first time that “Charlie Hebdo” was threatened by terrorist groups because of their cartoons that they found irreverent. In 2011, the newspaper local was firebombed over cartoons about the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Three years later, they came to finish the job.
But why a drawing trigger so much violence? Intolerance and hatred. A caricature is worth a thousand articles. Sometimes people don’t read a newspaper but they will look at satirical cartoons that summarize the current events and they will go for a good laugh.
Dictators and fanatics are afraid of laughter. However, laughter is a good indicator of the level of democracy and tolerance in a given society. Whether it’s in France or in the US, the ability to laugh about serious matters is definitely a good thing. There are some countries where you don’t have that kind of freedom. It would be impossible to host shows like SNL without risking your life there.
All of that reminds us that freedom is not free. What happened in France could also happen in the United States. Before the Charlie Hebdo carnage, we had the Sony Pictures hacking. Fortunately, no one was killed, but still it was also an attempt to gag freedom of speech.