PARIS — For a moment in time, Charlie Hebdo was a synonym for the universal cause of liberty — specifically, the freedom of the press.
In the aftermath of the January 2015 attacks on the satirical newspaper’s Paris offices — when 12 of its journalists were murdered by two radicalized brothers, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi — the worldwide slogan was “Je Suis Charlie” (“I Am Charlie”). It soon became an empathetic, global movement — with hashtags, profile pictures and banners in the street.
If the weekly was always provocative and even, to many, offensive — notably publishing images that ridiculed the prophet Muhammad, an absolute taboo in Islam — public opinion from Paris to Palo Alto insisted that the paper had a right to publish whatever it pleased.
But just 18 months after the attack that, in a sense, martyred Charlie Hebdo as an international symbol of press freedom, the newspaper has once again begun to test the faith of those who once defended it.
At issue is a cartoon in the paper’s current issue, about the devastating 6.2-magnitude earthquake that struck central Italy last week, a natural disaster that killed nearly 300 people and reduced parts of ancient towns to piles of rubble that are unlikely to be rebuilt anytime soon, if at all.
The town hit the hardest, Amatrice, was the home of a famous pasta dish that bears its name: pasta topped with a special sauce made of tomatoes and guanciale ham. Consequently, restaurants in Italy and around the world have been donating proceeds from their sales of bowls of spaghetti all’amatriciana to the earthquake relief effort.
Charlie Hebdo is no stranger to social media. Which is why, for many, seeing the paper's name trend globally on Twitter Friday morning was unsurprising. People quickly pounced on the trend, asking the question "what has happened this time?" "Earthquake Italian style" was the response.
— alexandra (@alyciaxuality) September 2, 2016
In the Charlie Hebdo sketch, under the banner of “Italian Earthquake,” two people — a man and a woman — stand next to a pile of rubble, out of which people's feet are visible. Each is splattered in red — blood, one would think. But then there are the captions.
In a clear allusion to the all’amatriciana connection, each victim represents a different pasta dish: the man, bloody and bandaged, is “tomato sauce penne,” the woman, crusty and burned, is “penne gratin,” and, perhaps worst of all to the critics, the victims in the pile of rubble — under thin layers of stone and blood — are “lasagna.” The blood is in fact tomato sauce, just as the human suffering is in fact spectacle.
Online, hundreds expressed shock and outrage at the cartoon, branding the illustration "disgusting" and "offensive."
— Domenica Pate (@domenica_pate) September 2, 2016
#CharlieHebdo They hide themselves behind "satire". Leave your office, come here and stand in front of those people who've lost EVERYTHING.
— Bianca. (@_letmehugharry) September 2, 2016
Disrespecting hundreds of people who lost their lives in a disaster is not satire, or funny but it is purely disgusting. #CharlieHebdo
— Mehmet Akduman (@mehmetakduman) September 2, 2016
It appears those who were once so proudly "Je Suis Charlie" may have just changed their minds.