It happened with Mumbai, with Norway, and now with Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The social mediatisation of terror spectacles seems to evolve like the time-lapse photography of biological growth. The tweets and hashtags multiply and metastasize before your eyes, as everyone has to have their say, no matter how trite. The hypocrisies vie with false declarations and empty sloganeering in a failed gesture of solidarity: Je Suis Charlie now, when it’s too late, but not before, when it actually mattered. Self-expression entwines with self-publicity, as the hashtag is seized by wholly unrelated entities. The mass media vultures quickly pick the bones clean, ensuring every angle is covered, however absurd and inconsequential, as if to lay claim to the narrative, nourishing the story for the readers it brings in. Soon the Islamophobics will claim it for themselves, too.
Then the ritual of statecraft begins: the premiers and presidents lining up to say solemn blandishments that say nothing, each trying to outdo the other, so that hyperbole inevitably creeps in, with Sarkozy suggestion not just democracy but all civilization had been attacked. Doleful announcements about transcripts of phone calls being made. Ironies abound that would not be lost on Charlie Hebdo, as authoritarian states who lock up cartoonists profess disgust at the attacks. Videos emerge of ‘how we observed the minute’s silence’ for Charlie Hebdo, a mournful video selfie that is wholly self-serving. ‘We are proud to wear the Je Suis Charlie logo’, writes one newspaper, the safe logo that signifies a lack of courage to publish the very cartoons which you claim are expressions of democratic freedom of speech. And so on, and so on, as Zizek would say.
Satirists and cartoonists respond admirably with bitter satirical cartoons. Journalists appropriate this attack for themselves. Free speech and freedom of the press are wheeled out, as self-censorship takes place: no British newspaper ran with a Charlie Hebdo cartoon on its cover, or even showed pictures of the dead cartoonists. Instead, the propagate the death cult myth of the terrorist agency, showing the assassination of the injured policeman on the street, labelled ‘barbaric’. Isn’t it also barbaric to act as a proxy PR agency for the militants?
Commentary, too, tiptoes around the valid issue of Militant Islam, terrified to offend. And there are valid reasons for this. An employer needs to protect its employees against reprisals. But this does mean that speech isn’t as free as it once was. And you can’t claim it is, or uphold it as a foundation of democracy, if you are running scared yourself. And so the terrorists have already gained ground. Je suis pas Charlie – je n’ai pas leurs couilles. I don’t have their balls. We, none of us, have the courage of their convictions, to say like Stéphane Charbonnier better ‘to die standing up than live on your knees’. My own satirical musings picked safe targets: Tom Cruise, Kanye West, Ray Mears – through parody Twitter accounts and blog posts. Not even the Scientologists protested. I played it safe, erred on the side of caution and cowardice.
There will, of course, be questions asked about the protection offered at Charlie Hebdo, but there is no total protection against automaton-like militancy, with its irrational logic. Indeed, the repeated mentions of the shot policeman being Muslim fail to understand that this does not exonerate him from the ‘true believer’: to his skewed thinking, the fact he sports a police uniform and is working for the French state means he is now a ‘legitimate’ target.
Amidst the muddled explosion of expression in the face of the event, there are plenty of wrong notes hit. People revert to selfish stances: what about me? Could it happen here? There were several tweets by Americans asking this, despite the frequent non-terrorist mass deaths caused by gun crime. This in itself is interesting. It is the Other which terrifies. The white suburban mass murder we can fathom. The white Christian fundamentalist (Norway’s Breivik) does not overwhelm the senses. The black flag, the illegible linguistic script, the language, the religious chant, the raised finger…all this fills the mind with sublime notions of terror whose potency comes from its otherness. It is the ideology behind it that terrifies, that is sublime.
Typically, we think of this as something monumentally vast or infinite – the sea, mountains, the innumerable galaxies in space. But sublime terrorism needn’t overwhelm the senses like September 11th 2001 with the vast spectacle of a world-historical event, immense pyroclastic dust-clouds of massive skyscrapers brought down by political ideology – what Zizek calls the sublime object of ideology is in that cloud and the plumes of smoke visible from space. The remorselessness, the anti-humanity writ small and metropolitan, can do this. The image of the policeman, reeling on the floor injured, as helpless as an upended tortoise, rocking side to side, immobile, no threat, and the brutal dispatching – the brief look downwards, a single bullet to the head – his step is hardly interrupted by the act, automaton-like in its mechanisation. Here, too, is the sublime object of ideology. Our expectations of humanity – crouching down to offer assistance, extending a hand to help him up – is cruelly thwarted, and in its place is something unknown, uncivilised. Here is an an incomprehensible anti-humanitarianism. The senses are overwhelmed. Reason cannot grasp the depths of the hatred, of unfeeling, on display.
Another flat note was Steve Bell’s cartoon in the Guardian which portrayed the attackers as a Mickey Mouse death cult. It doesn’t work. The idea that satire and free speech can be silenced through terror is laughable, yes, but the terrorists themselves do terrify. Think of it. A typical grey January day in Paris, when you are forced at gunpoint to unlock a front door that you know will lead to a massacre. Forced at gunpoint to reveal the location of the Charlie Hebdo office that you know will lead to mass death. Forced at gunpoint to say your name, which you know will lead to your murder. Assassinated in front of your co-workers. These co-workers aware they are next. The gut squirms at the mere glimpse of the dread they must have faced. Again, this is the sublime manifestation of terror, as defined by Kant and Burke and picked up on by Zizek, overwhelming the rational senses, incapable of being vicariously imagined.
I hope Charlie Hebdo can survive. A French friend described them as ‘shaking the tree, making peope think’, almost anarchic in that they attacked all creeds, religious, political and ethical. Democracy examines itself through its satirists, exposing the hypocrisies, the cognitive dissonance, the bullshit, forcing us outside habitual thought patterns, making you go Huh as well as Ha.