Was Charlie Hebdo ‘Mocking’ The Death Of Alan Kurdi?

Charlie Hebdo has offended again. A recently published cartoon titled “So Close to His Goal”, shows Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose tragic drowning death sharply focused the world’s attention on the desperation of the migrant crisis in Europe, lying face down on the sand near a billboard featuring Ronald McDonald and advertising a 2-for-1 McDonald’s Happy Meal with the legend: ‘Two children’s’ meals for the price of one.” The caption reads, ‘So close to his goal.’ And above it all, reads “Welcome to migrants.’ A second cartoon titled “The Proof that Europe is Christian” shows a toddler drowning in the ocean. waters. Next to him a Christ-like figure walks on water. The caption reads, “Christians walk on waters… Muslims kids sink.”

Here is how I ‘read’ the cartoon, roughly: The West and Europe imagines itself the haven of liberal, secular ideals; it imagines itself the bastion of democracy, republicanism, and the social welfare state. In point of fact, it is as much in thrall to old-fashioned notions of Christian triumphalism and the blurring of the church and state as those regimes that it disdains. The West and Europe still fight holy wars; they still imagine itself under attack from the ‘Huns’ and the ‘Goths’ and the ‘barbarians’ and the ‘Moors.’ The migrants might have thought they were escaping to this promised land where they would be welcomed with open arms and invited to make a new life. Little do they know that they were only heading for a vapid, shallow, xenophobic, insular, Islamophobic, consumerist culture, one whose patron saint is Ronald McDonald, and whose guiding slogans are not the call to arms of the great revolutions, but rather, sales pitches for cheap goods.

That’s how I read it. I did not take these cartoons to be ‘mocking’ a dead child.  I do not claim to know the ‘intent’ of the cartoonist, but given Charlie Hebdo’s history, and the current context, my interpretation strikes me as at least halfway plausible.

I am not going to offer a systematic defense here of Charlie Hebdo, but want to make note of a couple of what I think are relevant points:

  1. The famous cartoon of Barack and Michelle Obama exchanging fist-bumps in the Oval Office, while wearing ‘Arab dresses’ and carrying guns, appeared on the cover of the New Yorker. Had it appeared on the cover of the National Review Online, complete with a comments section of gibbering right-wingers rubbing their hands in glee, reactions to it would have been considerably sharper. (I thank Justin E. H. Smith for this example.)
  2. The Onion once ran an article titled ‘Redskins Kike Owner Refuses To Change Team’s Offensive Name.’ I did not think the article or its headline was anti-Semitic. Some Jewish friends of mine were certainly offended.

Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are bound to offend many and their choice of vehicle for making their political points might be questioned. But they have ample material to choose from and ample opportunity to offend; this world and its dominant species’ arrogance and continuing self-destructive behavior will ensure that. Satirists exist and find work because we are worthy targets of satire.

Kill All The Cartoonists; God Will Sort Them Out

You read or view a satirical piece or a cartoon in a newspaper or a magazine. It offends you; you are enraged; your deepest sensibilities–personal, religious–have been ravaged and injured. Unable to assuage your feelings by acknowledging the abstract free speech rights of those who have so insulted you, and still caught up in a maelstrom of rage, you fantasize about doing terrible injury to them.

For some folks, matters end right here. Revenge remains at the level of fantasy; resentment smolders but then fades away, to be replaced by some other pressing concern. Perhaps a dull smart remains, one that occasionally flares up if a similar offense is committed in the future.

But some folks resolve to teach their offenders a lesson. Perhaps by causing them material damage, perhaps by doing them injury.  And then, after being initially fueled by an inchoate rage, they act deliberately and cold-bloodedly to bring about these effects.

The gap between these two sensibilities can seem, varying upon your particular sympathies and inclinations, either very large or very small. Perhaps the former demographic can turn into the latter if injury and insult are repeated, or if social, economic, and personal circumstances change; perhaps the latter are so pathologically unsound in the intellectual and ethical dimensions that such mergers need not be feared.

I do not doubt that if a dedicated cartoonist or poison-pen wielder were to get to work, they could produce a cartoon or an essay that would eviscerate all I hold near and dear, for after all, at the fringes of humor lurk its darker precincts: humiliation and ridicule. Perhaps they could draw cruel, offensive, grotesque, hurtful, caricatures of my long-dead parents, perhaps of my beloved wife and daughter, perhaps they could write a long stand-up routine that took accurate aim at my many, many shortcomings and vulnerabilities and evoked howls of laughter from strangers who were not invested in my being protective of my sensibilities.

I wonder how I would react. I could, and would, rage and rage, and dream and fantasize about punching the crap out of the offenders, but I suspect ultimately, I would back down and slink away to smolder, hoping time and new experiences would assuage this shame. Perhaps, because I write myself, I would compose a long screed in response–trying to return fire with fire. I have often been insulted and abused in online exchanges and have sometimes retaliated, but these, if they undergo repeat iterations, very quickly tire me out and leave me feeling worse than when I started.

I wonder what, if anything, would make me seek out a violent solution to my crisis, a violent release to my angst. Perhaps if I was a psychopath or sociopath–poorly understood terms, I know–that found some dispassionate pleasure in the act of killing. Or perhaps, more plausibly,  perhaps if I could be persuaded that it would bring about a larger, more dramatic, desired change–political or economic–elsewhere; perhaps if I could be persuaded that such an action would set wheels rolling that would bring me closer to some destination much more important than a relief station for anger. Perhaps then, I might consider such an option a little more seriously. Perhaps then, I might not rest content with mere figurative retaliation.