Yesterday marked the four-year anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in which the staff of a satirical French comics publication, along with several bystanders, were murdered by jihadist terrorists inside their Paris offices. The killers were the brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi who acted on their offense at Hebdo’s cartoon depictions of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad by murdering 12 people in a shooting rampage after which, witnesses said, they could be heard to yell “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad. We have killed Charlie Hebdo!” as they fled the scene.
The Hebdo attack, it would later become clear, was a pivotal historical moment not because of the event itself but owing to the response. The aftermath of the Hebdo killings galvanized a set of opposing ideas about the nature and causes of the attacks, the value of free expression, the meaning of victimhood, which animated an ongoing conflict for control over cultural values in Western societies.
It only took a few days after the murder of cartoonists for the crime of their drawings before a certain fashionable political reaction coalesced in the American and Western press. While, of course, condemning the dreadful murders, certain sensitive observers couldn’t help but note that the scribblers at Hebdo really had gone too far with their drawings. And before long, many very smart and sophisticated people, New Yorker writers and PEN award winners among them, hastened to point out that—yes, yes, it was a very nasty thing, the shooting them down in cold blood—but the cartoonists were, nevertheless, rightfully understood, participating in their own form of violence because their cartoon’s mockery of Islam was an extension of the systemic oppression of Muslims in Europe and elsewhere.
The belief that art can be a form of violence is now a mainstay on elite college campuses and in the cultural landscape. But if you are wondering when it took root, I suggest that Hebdo played an important role.
This was the period when you would hear people invoke the maxim of “not punching down,” as if it were an axiomatic moral truth. Certainly, it was a useful way to suggest that the Hebdo crew had it coming without actually having to come out and say that. BOP! And cartoon punches were real violence. BAM! Not that you could get much further down than dead cartoonists but, wow, oh man, did a lot of people take the opportunity to punch those French cartoonist corpses while they were still fresh in the ground.
The response to Hebdo, I would argue, was a seminal event that formalized a constellation of influential illiberal precepts. Among them, the opposition to free speech as the handmaiden of systemic oppression, and the ideologically driven denial of victimhood to Jews—who had been attacked in alarming and growing numbers throughout France in the years leading up to the Hebdo murders but were seen by influential segments of the European and American left as too powerful to really be victims.
Two days after the Hebdo massacre, a friend of the Kouachi brothers after swearing his allegiance to ISIS, entered the Hypercacher kosher supermarket in Paris and killed four Jews.
In a sense, Tablet’s reporting on the Hebdo attacks actually began a year before they occurred. It started in June of 2014 with Tablet writer Marc Weitzmann’s five-part series on growing anti-Semitism in France. But it continued in the aftermath of the killings. Over the course of the following year, essays and articles by Tablet writers like Paul Berman, Liel Liebovitz, Marc Weitzmann, and Vladislav Davidzon analyzed the ideology that inspired the jihadist death cults, the cultural ecosystem that shaped killers like the Kouachi, the stakes for Western societies, which, in the days before Trump, had the chance to defend the free press. It’s clear in retrospect that Tablet’s original mission calling attention to the dire situation for the Jews in France where anti-Semitism had been normalized and then turned murderous was a a grim foreshadowing of what was to come in the Hebdo attacks. It remains a warning, now.
Here, in one place, is a collection of some of Tablet’s best writing from those days.
Je Suis Charlie: The massacre in Paris and the freedom to say stupid things, By Liel Leibovitz
The Frightening Reality for the Jews of France: A year of anti-Semitism, violence, and incitement in France, By Stephanie Butnick
The Charlie Cover: Slander, ridicule, and terror in post-1968 France, By Paul Berman
In Paris, PEN Boycott Makes Americans Look Like Crude Provincials: Why the political and cultural battles being fought here have nothing to do with what happened over there, By Vladislav Davidzon
Jews, Muslims, Liberals, PEN Boycotters, Beware: Voltaire Is Laughing at You: Is the Enlightenment philosopher having a moment? By Paul Berman
The Failure of Intelligent Explanations: France grapples with the aftermath of attacks that are no longer ‘just against Jews,’ By Marc Weitzmann