In the summer of 1970, I was hitchhiking through the French countryside when a middle-aged guy in an old Citroën deux chevaux picked me up. We started talking politics and at some point I asked him what French people thought about the Israelis smuggling five missile boats out of Cherbourg harbor the previous December in defiance of the arms embargo imposed by President Charles De Gaulle.
“Ah,” he replied. “You know the French: ‘The Germans? Screw ’em. [Je m’en fiche.] The Jews? Screw ’em. The Arabs? Screw ’em. But me? I’m no racist.'”
That is pretty much the attitude of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical Parisian weekly whose staff was decimated yesterday by assassins apparently bent on avenging its graphic insults to the Prophet Muhammad. But it’s worth recognizing that the magazine’s penchant for religious provocation is only an extreme manifestation of a European willingness to insult believers not shared by the American news media.
After the eruption of violent protests in the Muslim world against the Muhammad cartoons published by the Danish paper Jyllens Posten a decade ago, newspapers across the Continent published the cartoons in a show of solidarity. By contrast, the number of American newspapers that did the same could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
I’m not suggesting that we should imitate the Europeans, though in that case the journalistic obligation to let readers know what all the fuss was about ought to have dictated publishing at least a few of the cartoons. The customary American deference to religious sensibilities does, however, sometimes lead to an unfortunate tendency to blame the victim.
A case in point is the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue, who said of Charlie Hebdo‘s murdered editor-in-chief Stephane Charbonnier, “It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death.” But Charbonnier understood the role he played perfectly. His offices had already been firebombed. “I prefer to die standing up than to live on my knees,” he declared.
“Anti-Catholic artists in this country have provoked me to hold many demonstrations,” Donohue continued, “but never have I counseled violence.” Good for him. There may even be a principle here worth risking martyrdom for.