What shall we make of “Charlie-Hebdo,” the Paris satirical magazine, the massacre there, the tension and violence in France?
The gunmen/criminals/terrorists are dead. But now how shall we relate that horrible scenario to ourselves, here, seemingly isolated (but not really) in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas?
We can relate by remembering our own “Charlie,” our own “Carlitos” among the Mexican journalists (and forty-three young students) slaughtered in Mexico, some for expressing themselves in writing, or in protest, daring to confront cartels and government corruption.
We can choose to empathize with the French, with free expression anywhere. We can reinforce our commitment to our own constitutional rights and to a secular society. Such a system—largely promulgated by and inherited from France—recognizes freedom of belief and worship but not the imposition of one religion’s practices over the rest.
Some are traumatized. CNN and even the New York Times refused to reprint the cartoons (MSNBC did). They see their actions as protective of employees, not as self-censorship. In Mexico, reacting to violence from the cartels, some newspapers stopped writing about them, as their journalists were killed and editors threatened. But anger with and criticism of the government for possible complicity with criminals and their own brand of terrorists continue.
Here in the U.S., in the Valley, the conversation continues. There are reasonable arguments on both sides of the question of satire and criticism. In all three countries—France, the U.S., Mexico—there echoes the famous promise of French philosopher, Voltaire: “I do not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Fortunately with this heritage, there are no “blasphemy” laws in our countries. As Dr. Jerry Polinard, University of Texas—Pan American constitutional law scholar puts it, in our courts there is no “heckler’s veto.” A comment or cartoon or artistic presentation that might be “offensive” to one person’s religious beliefs does not give that person license to eliminate that action, to stifle freedom of belief or speech of others.
Unfortunately, some of our own religious extremists do not yet “get” this concept. They insist their own fundamentalist views must be imposed on others; e.g., mandatory prayer in schools, display of the “Ten Commandments.” They occasionally clamor for the censorship of avant guard art if they deem it offensive to their view of Christianity.
These individuals have many followers and, in many cases, have political power. They would, if they could, take us back to a dream (nightmare?) of theirs, centuries back to an imposed theology on all, just as extremist Muslim clerics and followers seem to be trying to do in Europe and the Middle East.
The good news is that the moderate believers—whether Muslim, Christian, Jew, or those of other faiths—are more numerous. If only they (we) were more assertive in our secular, democratic, pluralistic positions. In France, President Francois Hollande was relieved but still resolute: “we are a free people who cave to no pressure.” Public outpouring of grief and resilience remain in Europe, the U.S., and Mexico.
Previously in Mexico, in reaction to the massacre in Guerrero late last year, there were many “Je Suis Carlitos”-type marches, mourning and honoring the dead. They occurred in the U.S. too, including south Texas (at the Mexican Consulate in McAllen). Most of us don’t know what else to do.
We show our empathy, sympathy and our anger. We don’t know quite where to direct that anger, but at least we take action, doing what we can. Such action should include an increased intellectual and political commitment to eliminating racism and economic inequality. Much of what we do may seem feeble but it is very human and heartfelt.
We can pray, sing, read poems, draw posters and other art and satire. We can converse and debate. We can urge greater support for education at all levels. Some of us talk with friends and family; some write columns. We each do what we can in our own way. We can participate politically and vote even if, too often, officials may not follow our lead in a steady manner.
It is hoped we do all of these things with an increased commitment to understanding and tolerance, with an increased commitment to pluralism, diversity and democracy. “Je Suis Charlie,” or, to bring it home, “Yo Soy Carlitos.” I support brave souls who oppose injustice and intolerance wherever they may exist.