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.