Je Suis Charlie

What do we do with words now?

There's no way to bring back the dead. Twelve people at Charlie Hebdo were killed today for standing up for the right to speak about -- and even dare to laugh at -- the world in which we live.

"Sans voix devant cette haine, cette barbarie et cet obscurantisme" -- "Speechless before this hatred, barbarism and this darkness" a friend of a friend wrote on Facebook. Yes, we are speechless. Yet speech is crucial.

The killers believed that satiric journalistic expression was blasphemy. The representation of God so threatened them that they felt empowered to speak as God and to take the lives of others into their own hands. They spoke with bullets. But, offensive and irreverent as the writers and cartoonists may be, they speak with words and images, as people. Cartoons and language live in the realm of the human. The free use of words, drawings and ideas are what make us thrive as humans who can only reach toward the divine. We do not silence others and replace divinity with death. Words and drawings are the expression of our humanity.

Of course, that's what makes words and cartoons threatening.

A response has been circulating on the Internet in response to the killings: "Je Suis Charlie" or "I am Charlie" -- as in Charlie Hebdo. It's a statement of solidarity with the victims. I replaced my current Facebook cover photo with the phrase to mark the sobriety of the day. Then I had a moment of worry. Could the exposure of that posting in the mysterious and public world of cyberspace cause me to become a target? Yes, I am aware that the fear is rather neurotic and (hopefully) unfounded. But when danger so overtly attaches itself to speech, it may give even the bravest a pause before speaking publically. Perhaps this is why so many writers and activists have come out immediately to stand with Charlie Hebdo and free speech. They are refusing to cower to the fear of bullets.

Writing is risky. I know this in a different -- less deadly -- capacity. Writing a family memoir, I grapple with what I say about my relatives. Might certain "truths" that I wish to expose to reading strangers offend the ones I love? If I write less-than-flattering observations about say, my beloved life-giving mother, what scars will I cause? The potential to offend others lies in any act of written assertion. Sometimes we write intending to offend and sometimes we do so unwittingly. But the threat is embedded in the word and image.

Today the world that cherishes free speech and secularism is reeling from the devastating violent loss of life and the real dangers posed to speech.

However scary it may be, I want to declare: Write. Draw. Say the outrageous.

Ideas, drawings and words echo long past the time we live on this earth. No assailant can silence them.

I add a translation of the words of Paul Éluard's sent to me today by my French friend Eric in Paris -- the poem Liberty:

On my school books
On my desk and trees
On the sand and snow
I write your name

On all pages read
On all white pages
Stone sand paper or ashes
I write your name

On the jungle and desert
On the nests and gorses
On the echo of my childhood
I write your name

On the marvels of nights
On the white bread of days
On the married seasons
I write your name

On the fields on the horizon
On the wings of birds
And on the mill of shadows
I write your name

On each puff of dawn
On the sea on the boats
On the demential mountain
I write your name

On health regained
On risk that is no more
On hope without memories
I write your name

And by the strength of one word
I start over my life
I was born to know you
To name you


Paul Éluard.