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Nous Sommes Tous Charlie Hebdo

Journalists’ identity rests on the shaky foundation that we can all fight about what the government should look like or how the powerful should be held accountable, without dying.

When I was a student in Madrid, I was obsessed with the satirical cartoon magazine El Jueves. I was from suburban Utah. I had never seen media like it: So irreverent. So funny. So weird. I grabbed every new issue and it helped teach me a crass, leftist version of urban Spanish that stoked and channeled the fire of my post-adolescent secular rage.

I wished I could draw cartoons like that. I did draw up plans to fly home and launch something similar. There were certainly some sacred cows in Utah I would have liked to lampoon. What I didn’t properly appreciate was that the faithful there, I knew, could handle merciless satire pretty well.

Alas, I did not launch El Jueves Salt Lake. Today, I almost wished I had. I wished I could commission one of the thousands of cartoons that need to be drawn today to stand in solidarity with those murdered for their drawings in France.

My first thought was of El Jueves, Wednesday morning when I heard of the attack on cartoonists and others, including police, in Paris at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The targeting of journalists in this new style of jihad has frightened me greatly. No, I don’t fear for my own safety. I’m far from that front line.

But as journalists, we have to assume we live in a world that can handle our challenges, our arguments and even our mistakes. Our identity rests on the shaky foundation that we can all fight about what the government should look like or how the powerful should be held accountable, without dying.

This is a civilization we constructed over many generations and many fights. I feel privileged and protective of that world where communication is so easy. The barrier to entry to challenge authority has been pulverized by technology.

And yet some folks hate that world that I cherish so much that they’re willing to murder on behalf of an authority that you are not allowed to challenge. That scares me.

I turned to El Jueves today, through the miracle of the web – of modern civilization – to see how they were making sense of it. And they put what I was trying to articulate very simply: “estamos ante un ataque a la civilización misma, que tantos siglos nos ha costado conseguir.” We are facing an attack on civilization itself, which took us so many centuries to achieve.

Salman Rushdie, the author also threatened by terrorists, put it like this: “When you commit murder because somebody says things you dislike, you cross the frontier between civilisation and barbarity.”

I’m comforted knowing that El Jueves and countless others will work to turn this wound into an inspiring, if ugly, scar. When you attack a concept – or a tactic – like satire or freedom of expression, you can’t kill it. By definition, it’s an idea. It’s in our minds – you can kill a few vessels carrying it but billions of others will move it along. (Unfortunately, this goes for the war on “terrorism” too.)

No matter how far from danger we get to be, it’s our duty to protect what previous generations helped build: the assumption that we can challenge authority and go home alive.

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