The difference between Charlie Hebdo and the American Freedom Defense initiative



In response to the “cartoon contest” in Garland, Texas, that provoked an attack by two “Muslim extremists,” the news media has not been able to avoid making parallels to the much more devastating attack on the editorial offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Most of those commentators have felt uneasy enough with the comparison that they have made some effort to try to distinguish the two events. But in the end, the failure to emphasize the distinctions stands as a testament to the media’s inability to distinguish between superficiality and balance in its coverage of events.

I could, of course, be much more cynical and assert that the media’s failure to distinguish much more clearly and decisively between the two events simply demonstrates how much profits define coverage: that is, the coverage of the attack in Garland, Texas, was more newsworthy to the extent that it might have paralleled the attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters because that attack had been truly international news and the attack in Garland would represent the movement of such violence from a foreign to a domestic location.

I could be even more cynical and assert that the media’s failure to distinguish between the two events much more clearly and decisively was, in effect, a moot editorial decision because the much lower body count in Garland, Texas, in itself made it almost impossible to provoke viewer interest by asserting such a comparison.

One must grant that in both instances, cartoons insulting to Islam provoked violence and, furthermore, that provoking a strong response was the intention of those who were attacked. But that is essentially where the parallels actually end. Because the difference between the two events is actually very substantial, and it is the difference between satire and incitement.

Although many observers have been loathe to admit it, Charlie Hebdo has been an “equal-opportunity” satirical magazine: that is, as a satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo has focused on what is in the news and has sought to exaggerate every absurdity in what has occurred in order to provoke its readers into questioning the ways in which impactful events are otherwise explained—or, more precisely, explained away—both by the public figures centrally involved in the events and by the media. It happens that Islamic extremism has been very much in the news, and Charlie Hebdo has, indeed, focused on its absurdities unsparingly. Nonetheless, no one can assert with any credibility that Charlie Hebdo exists primarily to expose the absurdities of Islamic extremism—that absent that target, the magazine would have little satirical purpose.

The exact opposite is, of course, the case with the American Freedom Defense Initiative. Led by the likes of Pamela Geller and courting demagogues such as Geert Wilders, its main purpose is to attract media attention and broader public support by provoking violent confrontations with Muslims. I doubt very much that the “cartoon contest” in Garland, Texas, attracted very many professional cartoonists, or satirists. In fact, it is very noteworthy that while the news media was reluctant to reproduce covers of Charlie Hebdo and eventually did so, for the most part, very selectively, no one has reproduced the cartoons submitted for the $10,000 prize in Texas. There has been no focus on the winning entry. Instead, the event was a very crude and obvious attempt to model what provoked the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and thereby provoke a similar attack on U.S. soil. In short, it was a media stunt that worked, at least to some extent. But, the security forces that it was compelled to hire to protect those attending the event were so effective in thwarting the attack that it is also true that, to some extent, the stunt backfired: that is, although it demonstrated that it is possible to provoke an armed attack by Islamic extremists on U.S. soil, the attack was so ineffectual that it does not really serve to illustrate the magnitude of the threat that such extremists pose—the threat that the American Freedom Defense Initiative exists to counter.

If Islamic extremists cannot be exposed as an existential threat to our American way of life, the American Freedom Defense Initiative will have to find another target, and there has never been any lack of such targets for very similar sorts of xenophobic groups in the past. The group is identified as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center precisely because it existence depends on its ability to foment hate for an-“other” group or groups. All the better, if it can provoke hatred in extremists within the broader group it is targeting because “armed defense” is much easier to justify when one has actually been attacked. This is an extremist group whose main appeal is to like-minded or temporarily unaffiliated extremists tantalized by the promise of violence.

In contrast, Charlie Hebdo is a satirical publication that exists to shock—and even to provoke outrage–and ultimately to compel readers to rethink the significance of the “news.” Its main audience is not, however, extremists, whether they might be described as adherents or as opponents. It would seem, instead, to be people “in the middle”—people for whom outrageous satire is not an incitement to violence but a provocation to deeper thought. That satirists refuse to observe the bounds of “decency” is, of course, the reason that they can have such a profound impact. And it is also the reason why they can sometimes go so far in their efforts to shock their readers out of some certain complacency that they place their own liberty or even their own lives at risk.

Very few critics of Charlie Hebdo have accused it of provoking violence against Muslims. Indeed, most of the accusations have been the obverse of that charge: that the magazine’s editors and writers have carelessly or even deliberately provoked attacks by Islamic extremists.

Some might argue that Charlie Hebdo did so simply to drive sales—that there was a mercenary reason for the provocation that parallels the strategy of the American Freedom Defense Initiative.

But no matter how cynical one believes that the strategy of Charlie Hebdo has been, the end result of that strategy is, at worst, very cynical laughter—even cynical laughter sustained, literally, at the end of the barrel of a gun. In contrast, the end result of the strategy employed by the American Freedom Defense Initiative is a few more “true believers” in the efficacy of hatred framed as a defense of values.

So, the ultimate difference between Charlie Hebdo and the American Freedom Defense Initiative might be illustrated by the likelihood that, had they existed in the same location, the two groups would have targeted each other. Charlie Hebdo would have produced cartoons to expose the absurdities of Pamela Geller and her followers (as it has those of Wilders and his followers in the Netherlands). On the other hand, the American Freedom Defense Initiative would have used the publication of the cartoons to incite its members to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the satire. And lacking wit sufficient to express that dissatisfaction, they would, no doubt, have resorted to some less literary means of expression.