Yes, Charlie Hebdo was a magazine that delighted in controversy and provocation. Yes, it skewered religion and took joy in giving offense. Yes, the magazine knowingly antagonized extremists — Charlie Hebdo's web site had been hacked and its offices firebombed before today; French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius had asked of its cartoons, "Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?" And yes, Charlie Hebdo's editor said in 2012, prophetically, that "I prefer to die than live like a rat."
But this isn't about Charlie Hebdo's cartoons, any more than a rape is about what the victim is wearing, or a murder is about where the victim was walking.
What happened on Wednesday, according to current reports, is that two men went on a killing spree. Their killing spree, like most killing sprees, will have some thin rationale. Even the worst villains believe themselves to be heroes. But in truth, it was unprovoked slaughter. The fault lies with no one but them and their accomplices. Their crime isn't explained by cartoons or religion. Plenty of people read Charlie Hebdo's cartoons and managed to avoid responding with mass murder. Plenty of people follow all sorts of religions and somehow get through the day without racking up a body count. The answers to what happened today won't be found in Charlie Hebdo's pages. They can only be found in the murderers' sick minds.
Today is a good day to honor Charlie Hebdo and to share its work. It's a good day to do that because good people died today and we should remember them. It's a good day to do that because much of the work in Charle Hebdo was brilliant and any day is a good day to share it.
Don't allow extremists to set the terms of the conversation
But we shouldn't buy into the bullshit narrative of a few madmen that their murders were a response to some cartoons. We shouldn't buy into it even if we're saying that murdering in response to cartoons is always wrong. This is related to a point Charlie Hebdo made often and well. As my colleague Max Fisher wrote about the magazine's wonderful cover, "Love is Stronger Than Hate" (pictured above):
Part of Charlie Hebdo's point was that respecting these taboos strengthens their censorial power. Worse, allowing extremists to set the limits of conversation validates and entrenches the extremists' premises: that free speech and religion are inherently at odds (they are not), and that there is some civilizational conflict between Islam and the West (there isn't).
These are also arguments, by the way, made by Islamophobes and racists, particularly in France, where hatred of Muslim immigrants from north and west Africa is a serious problem.
And that is exactly why Charlie Hebdo's "Love is stronger than hate" cover so well captures the magazine's oft-misunderstood mission and message. Yes, the slobbery kiss between two men is surely meant to get under the skin of any conservative Muslims who are also homophobic, but so too is it an attack on the idea that Muslims or Islam are the enemy, rather than extremism and intolerance.
Allowing extremists to set the limits of conversation validates and entrenches the extremists' premises. That was true in the criticism of Charlie Hebdo's covers, and it's even truer in today's crimes.
These murders can't be explained by a close read of an editorial product, and they needn't be condemned on free speech grounds. They can only be explained by the madness of the perpetrators, who did something horrible and evil that almost no human beings anywhere ever do, and the condemnation doesn't need to be any more complex than saying unprovoked mass slaughter is wrong.
This is a tragedy. It is a crime. It is not a statement, or a controversy.