L Arlecchino Rivista Satirical Essays

MASKED gunmen killed 12 people today in an assault on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satire magazine famous, and infamous, for skewering nearly everything, but especially sacred cows. Their targets included religious fanatics of every kind, and they did not hesitate in publishing images of Mohammed, a practice considered blasphemous by some Muslims. The murderers remain at large, so their motive cannot be established with certainty, though a fleeing gunman was heard to shout "Allahu akbar", Arabic for "God is great". In this context, it is very easy to jump to conclusions, for it is very hard to imagine what might have inspired a killing spree targeting humour magazine staffers, including a handful of France's best-known cartoonists, other than the violent Islamic fanaticism that has scourged Charlie Hebdo for years. In 2011, for example, the magazine's office was fire-bombed after it published an issue "guest-edited" by Mohammed. It is possible that thrill-seeking nihilists picked a target tailor-made for deflecting suspicion. It is also exceedingly improbable.      

As a journalist, it is difficult to write objectively about the slaughter of journalists. This is especially true when one assumes that the execution was meant not only to punish those who have outraged the zealot's brittle sensibility, but to chill into silence anyone who might be tempted to do likewise. I shall not try to conjure eloquence equal to my wrath. Let me constrain myself to asking, of all the potential targets in the world, in France, in Paris, why Charlie Hebdo?

It seems that satire especially riles those most ripe for it. Those who murder in the name of God, or other high ideals, are monstrous, but also, somehow, ridiculous. In the gap between the true-believer's moralising self-righteousness and the vicious reality of what he defends there is a fog of delusion. The satirist minds that gap, despises the fog and shines a merciless hot light on the nonsense. The wider the gap, the greater the sustaining delusion, and the more damaging, and dangerous, the satire will be felt to be.

I am not entirely convinced that North Korea hacked Sony in retaliation for "The Interview", a light entertainment that lampoons Kim Jong-Un, but it is easy enough to believe. The North Korean dictator is one of the world's most ridiculous people, and it's not so hard to imagine that he would go to extraordinary lengths to stop the world, and himself, from having to face this fact.

There is something different, however, about the Charlie Hebdo attack, and I think it has to do with the concentrated satirical potency of the cartoon as a form. Drawings are able to communicate an idea instantly, worldlessly and internationally. They can travel quickly, free of the sandbags of nuance. Napoleon once complained that the caricatures of James Gillray “did more than all the armies of Europe to bring me down,” writes Jeet Heer, a Canadian cultural historian, in a short essay on the power of cartoons. Some years later, King Louis Phillippe had Honoré Daumier, a cartoonist, thrown in jail, arguing that “a pamphlet is no more than a violation of opinion, a caricature amounts to an act of violence”.

The natural potency of a cartoon is made more volatile when mixed with anything blasphemous, such as a depiction of Mohammed. For this reason, "countless cartoonists have been jailed, tortured and killed in recent years," Mr Heer writes. 

It is in this light that we should evaluate a message sent to CNN staff today by Richard Griffith, the cable network's senior editorial director. "Although we are not at this time showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet considered offensive by many Muslims", Mr Griffith wrote, "platforms are encouraged to verbally describe the cartoons in detail". Many news organisations (including this one) went to similar trouble when reporting the violence that broke out in response to the cartoons of the prophet published in a Danish newspaper in 2005. 

Of course, to verbally describe a cartoon is to explain a joke, defuse it, ruin it. A description of a cartoon deflects the blow of its punch. The sense of insult, provocation and danger that CNN and other outlets seek to avoid is an absolutely essential element of the story. To avoid it, to talk around it, amounts to misinforming the audience. The message is in the medium, and it is lost in translation. To describe the cartoons, and not show them, is essentially to do the bidding of the terrorists. 

Stéphane Charbonnier, Jean Cabut, Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac, the four Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were murdered today, knew they risked death by practicing their lacerating satirical art. They refused to be censored, and now they are dead. To supress their cartoons now, to suppress the work they lost their lives for, is to kill them all over again.      

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