The day after the Charlie Hebdo killings, as news was breaking of a second shooting in the south of Paris, I found myself in the cemetery of Montparnasse. I was scared and I needed a place to think and it seemed to make sense to go and surround myself with dead writers and artists; people who, while they hadn’t actually died for their art, had nevertheless lived for it and had chosen Paris as a home because it allowed them to make this choice. Gradually the fear gave way to anger and then to a sense of resolution; the realization that unless one exercises one’s right to free speech it ceases to exist. The dead cartoonists understood this, so did Beckett or Baudelaire or Tristan Tzara. And taken together there was something supremely beautiful in the ensemble of their lives and work. You don’t need to agree with, or even like, every one of them: I find Beckett too gloomy and Baudelaire and Tzara (for different reasons) a little over the top. But the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and Charlie Hebdo (a magazine which in normal times has a circulation of 60,000) was, and remains, a small part of that whole. Sitting in the cemetery that morning and listening to the helicopters overhead it was as if the position of the artist in society suddenly crystallized for me; while any individual artist may look like a romantic rebel flicking a finger at societal mores, artists as a group are the people who exercise, and hence guarantee, certain legal rights that civil society provides for us all.
That was Thursday; on Friday came the Hyper Cacher killings and then, almost before it was all over, something else began: the “yes buts", the blaming and the out-and-out lies. There was Tariq Ramadan, professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford, telling us that Charlie Hebdo were only in it for the money, that the French media has double standards when it comes to Jews and Muslims and hinting at the complicity of the French Secret Services in the Charlie Hebdo shootings. His proof? The fact that Said Kouachi left his ID card in the getaway car. Former National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen joined him in this conspiracy theorizing, neither of them pausing to think that the two brothers had criminal records as long as your arm and that, even without the ID card, it would have been perfectly simple for a forensic team to identify them. Nor thinking that maybe, just maybe, a couple of publicity hungry low-lifes who knew they would soon be dead would have done everything they could to draw attention to themselves. This was their fifteen minutes of fame; they wanted to enjoy every moment of it.
Over in The Guardian, Tariq Ramadan’s Oxford colleague, Timothy Garton Ash, had identified the real danger facing us: in a kind of Boys Own meets Buffy editorial he declared that Dresden’s Pegida movement was “a vampire we must slay”. Elsewhere in the same publication Owen Jones was quick to invoke the name of Anders Breivik and to stress that we mustn’t give in to islamophobia. Jeremy Harding at the LRB was concerned that because of the shootings it would “now be even harder than it was a week ago to speak up against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank”. Pegida are extremists, Breivik is a loathsome murderer and the Israeli government has committed many crimes against the Palestinians but is this really the right time to be making all these points? Surely they would be as valid in a month? Or (in the case of Breivik) three years ago?
Reading the Anglophone press (and things were no better in the US where The New York Times refused to even publish the new, inoffensive and eminently newsworthy Charlie Hebdo cover) felt like a long series of betrayals. Here was Will Self in professorial mode explaining that rights come with responsibilities before degenerating into some kind of bar room rant about French intellectuals. Here was Tariq Ali explaining that the shootings were all to do with foreign policy. Or Israel. Or both. Here was Noam Chomsky drawing parallels with NATO bombings in Serbia or the war in Iraq. There are grains of truth in all of these positions but taken as a whole and followed through to their logical conclusion what do they mean? That Charlie had it coming because they were irresponsible or French? That Israel’s crimes make any Jew a legitimate target? That Western military engagement renders it morally impossible to express outrage at murders committed on Western soil?
I was born in London to an Italian father and New Zealand mother, studied in England and the US and for the last ten years have called Paris my home. I am a product of what is sometimes referred to as The West and sometimes as the Global North (although quite how New Zealand can be considered either northern or western is another matter). Listening to the reactions of Self or Ali or Chomsky it would appear that the only responsible position for a person like me is to make my mea culpa and wait for the East or the downtrodden South to punch me on the nose. Whether a citizen can be held to account for his or her government’s actions is a moot point (I feel about as much responsibility for England’s involvement in Iraq as I do for Michelangelo’s Pietà or the victories of the New Zealand rugby team) but even if one can determine a chain of moral causality that still leaves the question of what course of action this complicity implies. If France as a whole has to accept some responsibility for the shootings in Paris because of French military intervention in Mali or US support for the State of Israel or Godefroy de Bouillon’s involvement in the Crusades then what should France as a whole or France’s politicians or any individual French citizen do about it?
It is precisely here – at the “what to do” of moral philosophy – that the liberal thinkers stop and precisely here where I would most value their input. Simply pointing out that nothing is as clear cut as it seems is not enough. Yes, world affairs are messy and no incident can be judged in an ahistorical vacuum but it is because of this messiness that I want to know which ethical standards will allow me to compare different acts of violence and distinguish between different strata of moral agency. I do not know what obligations are incumbent upon government and individual citizens because of previous foreign policy errors and here too would be happy to have some help. In the same way that I turned to the artists to try and make sense of the attacks while they were happening I turned towards the liberal press for guidance on how to react afterwards. For the time being the dead and buried in Montparnasse have been more forthcoming with their advice.