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Charlie Hebdo and the true power of the pen

A journalist views the front page of the latest issue of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Wednesday. (European Pressphoto Agency/STAFFpress)
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The pen, by the way, is not mightier than the sword.

There’s no equation between the two.

If you fight words with violence, the violence wins every time.

You cannot take shelter behind a paragraph. Pens are not swords, keyboards are not guns, and newspapers are not acts of war. We say these things, often, but these are metaphors.

Words have power. Speech is an act. Art is political, absolutely. Satire, parody, art, the acts of the pen: These have an immense and tangible value, and they can carry great distances in time and space to outlive both their creators and the people who would hope to suppress them. They can alter the course of history, both on the personal and national scale.

But they aren’t violent acts, and they’re in no way commensurate with violent acts. Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier put it well to Der Spiegel when his paper came under attack in 2012. “A drawing has never killed anyone.”

On Wednesday, he was killed by terrorist gunmen — among at least 12 dead in an attack on the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo.

“Aucun acte barbare ne saura jamais éteindre la liberté de la presse,” French President Francois Hollande tweeted. (“No act of barbarism will ever be able to extinguish the freedom of the press.” Good.

But a number of frustrating yet predictable things always happen, right after such horrible events, and they are happening already. First, Muslims are called upon to apologize and denounce, as though somehow the freak acts of fanatics were the responsibility of every member of the faith. This is nonsense.

And then, either carelessly or for convenience or for some other reason, people start to accept the line of causation drawn by the people who commit these acts: that this happened because of the drawings, or because of a print provocation, or because there are some things you just shouldn’t say and not expect consequences. No. No.

The way to fight words and art is with more words and better art. Not like this.

You can never appease fanaticism because it thinks that the price of words, of art, of blasphemy, is counted in lives. It is so frightened of the power of pens that it mistakes them for swords. This isn’t unique to one religion’s fanaticism, or one country’s fanaticism, or even one century’s fanatics. Voltaire wrote about this hundreds of years ago and, as usual, he said it best. “It is dreadful to observe,” he wrote, “how the opinion that the wrath of heaven might be appeased by human massacre spread, after being once started, through almost every religion.” This is no way of appeasing heaven.

The paper has been targeted before. Founded in 1970 when “Hara Kiri Hebdo” was banned for poking fun at the reverent coverage of the passing of Charles de Gaulle, it has been known for pushing the boundaries.

But just so we are clear: This did not happen because Charlie Hebdo published cartoons or articles or parodies. “Extremists don’t need any excuses,” Charbonnier told Der Spiegel in 2012. He was right.

And he wasn’t killed by a drawing.