January 9, 2015
The morning of January 7, three gunmen, brothers Chérif and Said Kouachi, 32 and 34 and Hamyd Mourad, 18, stormed the offices of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris. The Kouachi brothers are alleged to have carried out what are described as point-blank executions of ten of the newspaper’s staff of journalists, including four cartoonists, as well as two police officers. Mourad, who turned himself in to police, was the getaway driver.
All three men are native-born Frenchmen. The Kouachi brothers have a history with police. Chérif had allegedly planned attacks on French Jews and both men have been linked to al Qaeda.
In addition to the 12 dead, 11 others were wounded. The death toll is expected to rise.
The assault on the paper and the massive number of casualties brought immediate responses worldwide, from journalists and editorial cartoonists who decried the attack as an assault on free speech, to political leaders–France’s President Hollande, America’s President Obama, the UK’s Prime Minister Cameron. Every response was in agreement–this was an attack on freedom and freedom of speech, an attack on the civilized world by those who are uncivilized.
US Secretary of State John Kerry–who speaks fluent French–put it succinctly when he said of the murders that they “are part of a larger confrontation, not between civilizations–no–but between civilization itself and those who are opposed to a civilized world.
A “civilized world.”
That is not the world in which I live–as a woman, as a lesbian, in the poorest big city in America where nearly one in two of us lives at or below the poverty level and which has more rapes and murders than any of the top ten largest cities. My life is under threat every day–the real threats that come from being a woman in a crime-ridden poverty-stricken urban environment and the sort promulgated on social media where one never knows if the anonymous person on the other end of a tweet may actually rape you or stab you or toss a lit match to your gasoline-drenched body as they propose doing in a public forum for all to see, unchallenged.
The world in which I and the majority of women live is the one in which a third of us–more than one billion women–will be a victim of male violence.
Just as the 12 people murdered at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper were.
Male violence is the out-of-control pandemic we refuse to name. We cite each new event of catastrophic violence as if it happens in a vacuum: the Paris massacre, the Sydney siege, the mass murder of a family in Pennsylvania by a former veteran, the shooting of two police officers in New York City by a man who had already shot his former girlfriend, the shootings of unarmed black men and women by police, and on and on and on.
We talk about the perpetrators of these acts and their victims in various linguistic constructs–some are deemed terrorists, some deemed mentally ill, some criminals, some just doing their jobs.
What we don’t say, what we never say is, “Yet another brutal incident of male violence.” Yet the common denominator is not white or black, Muslim or Christian, mentally ill or not. The common denominator is that these killers are men. At some point we have to strip away all the isms and races, ethnicities and religions and realize male entitlement promotes and excuses male violence and a male-run and orchestrated media refuses to acknowledge that incontovertible common denominator.
Within hours of the Paris attack, social media was pulsing with comments, many in solidarity with the French, others darkly accusatory of Muslims and Islam, all ignoring male violence. A range of hashtags trended on Twitter, the most viral of which was #JeSuisCharlie (I Am Charlie). The most disturbing hash tag was #KillAllMuslims–proudly started by a man.
As evening fell across France, vigils with massive numbers of people flooded the streets and boulevards of Paris and other French cities holding signs that read Je Suis Charlie and Pas Peur (Not Afraid). Similar vigils sprang up in other places around the world.
As an American who used to live and work in New York City and for whom 9/11 still resonates deeply, all such violence unsettles me. I don’t pretend to understand the killing of innocent people. It’s incomprehensible to me.
I don’t understand what drives male violence.
As a journalist, any attack on journalists or freedom of speech concerns me. Without journalists there quite simply is no truth. Those of us who are reporters bring the news to the rest of the world and often risk–or even lose–our lives in the process.
So the attack on a newspaper that used satire to address political and social issues in France and abroad was highly inflammatory and meant to send a message of silencing and fear.
While the massacre in Paris was being carried out, paramedics were clearing the scene of a car bomb attack in Sanaa, Yemen. In that attack, staged outside a police academy where students were lined up and waiting to enroll, 37 people were killed and 66 wounded. As in Paris, the death toll was expected to rise.
But while the world converged to decry the violence of the Paris attack, the attack in Sanaa didn’t even make it through the full day’s news cycle. By mid-day it was off the BBC crawl, which meant it was old news.
Which meant, again, that those lives were meaningless to the West, even though Yemen is third on the list of most-bombed sites by American drones, after Afghanistan and Pakistan.
No president spoke out against the loss of life. Not even Yemen’s president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. There were no rallies. No tweets of solidarity. No hashtags.
Silence. Because that is how the majority of male violence is met: With silence.
In 2014, when ISIS was beheading journalists every few weeks, there were three beheadings of women in and around London. Two were categorized as “domestic” as the Muslim women were killed by their husbands and the third, of 82 year old Palmira Silva, while she was gardening, was considered a random act by a man who was described as mentally ill.
Two weeks after the beheading of Silva, two women were beheaded in their Oklahoma workplace in the US by a male co-worker who was also described as mentally ill. Another beheading of a woman a month later was listed as a domestic incident and her husband charged.
None of these beheadings of women was categorized as terrorism.
As those beheadings made brief, if dismissive, headlines, dozens of women and girls were beheaded by ISIS and a dozen more were beheaded by the government of Saudi Arabia–a close ally to both the US and UK. Those killings went unremarked, unlike those of the journalists which were decried by Obama and Cameron.
The perpetrators of every one of these beheadings–whether individual acts of violence in the West, or state-sponsored or ISIS-sponsored in the Middle East–was perpetrated by men but once again that fact was never a headline.
May never be a headline. Because we expect male violence. It’s incorporated into our view of the world. No one ever questions the sex of a murderer–that a killer would be other than male is anomalous.
We know who the perpetrators are.
As I navigated social media after the Paris killings, I found myself in a deeply emotional state that I could not articulate. I am not Muslim. There are no Muslims in my family. And while I do have Muslim friends and live in a neighborhood with a large Muslim population and a mosque only three blocks from my house, I am a Catholic and half my family are Jewish. There was no real link for me to the Muslim community.
Except perhaps that affinity the marginalized have toward each other in times of crisis.
I felt solidarity with the French–I knew this act of violence shocked them to their core because of its blatant brutality. And then, of course, there is the silencing of editorial voices–that can never be excused. As a journalist who has worked in daily newspapers my entire adult life, mostly working on stories that wouldn’t have been told without me, I know how precious the editorial voice is. Also, I have friends and colleagues who are editorial cartoonists. Their pictures are often worth the proverbial thousand words.
And yet as the day wore on, I felt discomfitted and struggled to articulate why, even to myself, even as I cried watching the news footage of the massive rallies of mourners throughout France and beyond.
One colleague of mine helped me articulate what I could not. Signe Wilkinson, the editorial cartoonist from the daily newspaper where I was a reporter and columnist for years was on the local TV news repeatedly over the course of the day talking about the Charlie Hebdo killings and her own work as a satirist. Wilkinson was the first woman editorial cartoonist to win the Pulitzer Prize and her work is phenomenal. One of her previous cartoons was all over Twitter as it depicted Mohammed and some of his prophets laughing at a book of satirical cartoons. The message was Mohammed had a sense of humor even if his followers did not.
Wilkinson said she was not afraid and she also said people needed to understand that “a cartoon can’t hurt anyone.”
Except, actually, it can. A cartoon can promulgate an immeasurable amount of hate.
That was the clarifying moment for me.
I had supplemented my tweets of #JeSuisCharlie almost immediately with #JeSuisMusulman (I Am Muslim). I had added this before it was an actual hash tag because I felt some inchoate need to do so–and because I actually felt uncomfortable with #JeSuisCharlie. Not because I didn’t feel that solidarity with slain journalists; I absolutely did.
But because I knew the work of Charlie Hebdo–everyone in newspapers did. And I was, frankly, appalled by it.
I could only embrace #JeSuisCharlie in as much as I am a journalist and revere free speech. I tweeted #JeSuisCharlie because I find violence both abhorrent and inhuman and these journalists had been slaughtered in their desk chairs. None had left their homes that morning knowing the next hours would be their last.
Because they were men–white men with privilege–they never considered male violence to be a threat to them.
Despite the solidarity I felt with the victims in the face of such brutality, what I was not, and am still not, is accepting of the kind of work Charlie Hebdo produced. And I am not fully convinced that such work is a useful or necessary editorial tool.
Two mornings before the Paris massacre I had seen a tweet on a close friend’s timeline that made my stomach churn–a quote attributed to Voltaire, “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”
Accompanying the quote was a cartoon of a giant hand crushing a plethora of people. But added to the original cartoon–which has a plain, unadorned sleeve–was the Judenstar, the Star of David that Jews in concentration camps were forced to wear.
I was horrified. Horrified at the image and horrified to find it amongst my friend’s tweets. I replied to it–it was a retweet from a prominent Green Party politician in London–saying I found the anti-Semitism offensive and noted the Nazi connection.
Both my friend and the Green Party man apologized. They actually hadn’t noticed. They had both thought of the quote and image as anti-Tory. The original tweeter deleted it. But I left Twitter for the day thoroughly unsettled by what had happened. The Hitlerian propaganda of the “vast Zionist conspiracy” had propelled the Holocaust and sent members of my own family to the death camps and others fleeing for their lives.
Throughout the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, it was editorial cartoons–depictions of hook-nosed Jews with tallis and long beards counting money while blond-haired Aryans stood by starving–that had bolstered the perception of Jews as the ruination of Germany, the source of the economic disruption that was actually caused by restrictions imposed by America and Britain after the end of WWI.
In the US, editorial cartoons of slack-jawed blacks with shuffling gaits and vacant stares bolstered the racism that permeated the country blatantly for two centuries. A casual foray to any white supremacist website in the US today will find more of these anti-Semitic and anti-black cartoons–as if it were still 1815, not 2015.
You will find regrettably similar cartoons from Charlie Hebdo, the shuffling blacks from America’s most shameful racism replaced by a drooling, googly-eyed Mohamed stumbling through the desert with a camel. The hook-nosed Jews of 1930s Berlin can also be found there.
I can be a proponent of free speech and not want to be party to that kind of editorializing. A friend said people needed to have a sense of humor about cartoons. But the people who say this all seem to be white, Western and almost wholly male. They are neither Muslims nor Jews. They are the people who if they are killed, get worldwide headlines and hashtags and a day of mourning. They are not the people whose names are never known. They are not the French Jews dragged out of their houses in the center of Paris and put on cattle cars to Mauthausen concentration camp after having been informed upon by their Christian neighbors, nor are they the French-born Muslims shunted into banlieues–the Parisian slums where France hides her jobless refugees from French colonialism in North Africa.
Feminists know some lives matter more than others, because the lives of women are under constant threat worldwide and no one cares. Feminists know that theirs is the one political philosophy that has never killed anyone. Feminists know that if men didn’t respond with violence to everything, be it an editorial cartoon or a dinner not to a husband’s liking, the world would be a better, more livable place. Feminists know that until and unless we face the destructive, pandemic force that is male violence, there will always be lives that matter and lives that do not. We will know the names of white French men victims and never know the names of Muslim Yemeni women victims–even if they are killed for the same reasons.
We may say “pas peur” in solidarity, but it is a solidarity that if illusory and doesn’t actually include us. For women, for Muslims, for Jews, for anyone who comes from a marginalized group or class, “pas peur” can never be true. Those of us who are the real targets of violence–which is not the journalists of Charlie Hebdo, who are actually anomalous victims–are in fact, afraid. We are afraid precisely because we know our lives have little worth in the global hierarchy. We know there will never be massive vigils held for us or hash tags created to memorialize us.
The Paris shooting unsettled the world precisely because its victims were not the victims we usually see–and dismiss. And that is perhaps the saddest sidebar to this tragedy: that the violence will not end because we will never call it by its real name.
Feminists know the source of the all these brutal killings.When will the rest of the world catch up?
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer and the author and editor of nearly 30 books. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She won the 2013 SPJ Award for Enterprise Reporting in May 2014. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a columnist and contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. Her reporting and commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Village Voice, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer. Her book, From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for cultural&historical fiction. Her novel, Ordinary Mayhem, will be published in February 2015. Her book Erasure: Silencing Lesbians, will be published in June 2015. @VABVOX