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A Point of View: How can anyone make sense of the Charlie Hebdo killings?

A woman holds a 'Je suis Charlie' sign Image copyright Getty Images

It's difficult to understand the attacks in Paris - but the caricaturist's craft offers a means of doing so, says Adam Gopnik.

When I woke up in New York on Wednesday morning and heard about the horror in Paris earlier that same day, the cold-blooded murder of the staff of Charlie Hebdo magazine, I thought first of Wolinski, and then I thought of my friends Nisha and Saley.

Wolinski, of course, was one of those murdered in that massacre of elderly cartoonists, and several others, by two brutal terrorists. Well, to call them terrorists is, of all strange things under the sun, to pay them a compliment. For they were not, like most terrorists, assailants of strangers whom they could not fully register as human - these were cold-blooded killers of people whose faces they were forced to see as they killed them, men so far gone in evil that they were willing to murder a roomful of helpless and unarmed old men.

We should, I know, not dwell on the mere tabloid details of this horror, and its dramatic conclusion, but seek to place it in context or proportion or… something. I find that hard. We under-rate, or don't talk sufficiently, of the sheer deliberate cruelty, the sadism of terrorism - in what was what I hope the worst video any of us will see, we saw these same killers cold-bloodedly murdering a fallen policeman as he pleaded for his life, and making a casual joke as they did. These men enjoy killing helpless people. If there is a worse thing to be said about anyone, I would not know what it is.

But, no - Wolinski. I was going to talk about Georges Wolinski. I met him just once in passing, at a dinner in Paris. So I can't say I knew at him all, but I admired him greatly, even though the wild, coarse style of caricature he practised was not the one I like the most. An Asterix man, a Goscinny and Uderzo man, I would be lying if I presented myself as some kind of all out fan of Charlie Hebdo and its contents. My tastes in humour are for the subtle and sentimental, and I never much like the over-charged and over-stated, which their work as caricaturists certainly was.

But though I am probably a bit of a coward when it comes to comedy - I probably like it sweeter than I should - I am at least an instinctive pluralist: I really like there to be things in the world, and on the news-stand, that I don't like. Charlie Hebdo was not to my taste but I was always glad to see it persisting. It spoke of an older, rawer, French tradition that I could appreciate even if I didn't much care for it. France is an uptight country that needs the relaxation of the truly, weirdly unfastened - Rabelais could only be French, exactly because the refined needs the raw. But Wolinski - he was… cool. Big in presence, funny warm, caustic and very Jewish. He came, I learned after, from a Polish-Jewish father and a Tunisian-Jewish mother, and came, exactly as much of my mother's family did, to Paris from Tunisia with the end of World War Two. To think of this grand, sensual old man, and then to think that the last thing in life he would see was a hooded look of hatred and the pointed metal nose of a machine gun, is to guarantee yourself a lost night's sleep, and not just one night either.

Georges Wolinski

Image copyright AP
  • Born in Tunisia to Jewish parents
  • In 2005, he was awarded France's highest decoration, the Legion of Honour
  • He was a famous dandy and bon vivant, according to Le Parisien
  • Mistrusting all religions, he once said: "Paradise is full of idiots who believe it exists"

Charlie Hebdo attack: Victim obituaries

And then I thought of Nisha and Saley. They are Muslim friends in Paris. Nisha helped to look after our children when they were small and growing up there, and we became life-long friends. Their kids Facebook our kids and we always try to see them when we are in France - I saw him just last autumn, when I was in Paris to look at those love locks. Warmer, dearer people - more loving and conscientious parents - you will never meet. And they are not Muslim in name only - they are far more religious in the practice of their tradition than I have ever been in mine. I know how complex their feelings can be about their place in France. Although they are now permanent Parisians, they told us once that they feel invisible in their country and I still recall their delight, so many years ago now, in 1998, when France's wonderful multi-coloured and many-cultured team won the World Cup, and they drove to the Champs Elysees to celebrate the arrival - a false dawn, alas - of a truly one France made from many kinds.

Wolinski and Nisha, Jews and Muslims in France… The trap-lines of Islamophobia and Judaeophobia are different, of course. Hatred of Jews tends to concentrate on their undue eagerness to assimilate to the cosmopolitan life around them, which still cannot disguise their fundamentally alien nature: "They are spies upon us!" is the cry. Hatred of Muslims tends to concentrate on their unwillingness to assimilate to the life and values around them in any way at all: "They are saboteurs in our midst!", is the cry. But both have in common a refusal to look at people - the Wolinskis and the Nishas and the Saleys - and instead concentrate on, well, on violent caricatures, sprung out of the comic books where they belong into angry minds where they don't, where they are no longer hypothetical absurdities but living targets.

To reject completely any notion of collective guilt is to bear down all the harder on the idea of individual responsibility. The notion that what some have called France's "stark secularism" - or its level of unemployment, or its history of exclusion, that imposed invisibility - is in any way to blame or even a root cause for this, depends on being ignorant of the actual history of France.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Demonstrators have left piles of pens in a tribute to the Charlie Hebdo staff killed

But unemployed people don't typically - or indeed, ever - look 80-year old men in the eye and then blow their brains away. Excluded or invisible people always suffer from their sense of not quite belonging - as the Jewish immigrants of Wolinski's generation to France did, too. They write books, they protest, sometimes they even emigrate. They do not mock dying policemen and then complete their murder. To make the secular model, or anything except fanaticism itself, responsible for the horrors we have seen would be absurd, if it were not so obscene.

Fanaticism is the enemy, not faith. It always is. But only a fool would deny that faith has been the seedbed of fanaticism in mankind's long and sorry struggle for the light. That's why, when the non-religious commit acts of shocking cruelty and intolerance, as they often have and will again, it is normal for us to say that they have made a religion of their politics, or that they are in the grip of a blinding and inhumane dogma.

France has that "stark secularism" not to de-fang faith, but exactly to keep faith from turning towards fanaticism - and it does this by compelling the faithful to look each other in the face and recognise that they must live together or die. Secularism is not a way of disarming religion. The basic social contract of the Enlightenment is that tolerance is there above all to guarantee the free exercise of faith. No one can try to forcibly convert a Muslim (or a Jewish, or a Catholic) child in France, or to prevent their worship. This comes at the low cost of accepting the right of all faiths to persist, including the faith of those who think that we should never have faith in anything.

This is a very new thing in the history of the West. Five hundred years ago it would have been unimaginable for French Catholics to accept this co-existence with Islam. A mere hundred years ago, as we know, Jews were hounded and imprisoned, and worse was yet to come. Ours is the great era of tolerance, and we have no reason to apologize for it.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Hassen Chalghoumi called the victims martyrs

Sometimes tragedy provokes individual eloquence. Hassen Chalghoumi, the Muslim imam of Drancy, a Paris suburb, rushed to the scene of the killings and said: "I feel an immense sadness but above all anger. We can argue over liberty, but when we're in disagreement we respond to art with art, to wit with wit. We never respond to a drawing with blood. No! Never. These victims are martyrs, and I shall pray for them with all my heart." Courage, said CS Lewis, that great Christian philosopher, is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point. France is at a testing point this weekend - of truthfulness, decency, and solidarity - and also of what they call the ability to "desolidarise" - to put the people we know before the abstract categories we imagine. Come to think of it, making people, with all their flaws, fully visible while leaving ideal types alone, is exactly what the caricaturist has always done for us. It's their special form of bravery.

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