Laughing in the face of extremism

By Zac Bears

People hold placards during a rally in support of Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, after an attack at the headquarters of the satirical newspaper killed 12 people. (Julien Muguet/Maxppp/Zuma Press/TNS)
People hold placards during a rally in support of Charlie Hebdo after an attack at the headquarters of the satirical newspaper killed 12 people. (Julien Muguet/Maxppp/Zuma Press/TNS)

When I awoke to the news of the premeditated murder of 12 people, from custodian to editor in chief, at the offices of the newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris Wednesday, I realized the true danger of extremism – not just acts of violence, but the polarization of our world. It inspires people like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher to deplore all religions and persons with religious belief, and Internet agitators to equate the “violence” of law to a brutal massacre, comment about the ineffectual nature of gun control and invoke the immorality of leftist thought.

Fourteen years ago, another act of terror pushed politics to an extreme in the United States. Near 90 percent approval ratings for a president elected controversially less than a year before, and George W. Bush’s capacity to lead America into two wars barely expose that extremism. We still see it today, from a cross-party defense establishment unwilling to admit its own acts of torture to the basic inability of Congress to pass a budget.

There is no doubt in my mind that more people live on our society’s extremes than can be healthy for a nation. The gap of income and wealth inequality is wider than at any point since the Depression. Republicans have moved to an ideological extreme, accepting tactics of fear, division and bigotry to engage some voters. Democrats have responded to those tactics with rancid attacks on the statements of conservative icons, like Rush Limbaugh. America’s racist reality has reemerged from PC prison with ugly, continuing examples of groups turning their backs on the truth, unwilling to look beyond ideology, tribalism and, again, extremism.

But the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks transformed our society in an even more sinister way. Islamophobia became rampant in the weeks and months after the attacks, with those whom Americans perceived to be Arab (a broad grouping of races and ethnicities, many non-Arab) facing “harassment, violence, and workplace discrimination,” according to a 2006 study. This resulted in an increase in premature births, low birth weight and other negative birth outcomes in Arab-American women after 9/11. Researchers found no such increase for any other group by race, ethnicity or national origin.

This time, I waited for a different response. Perhaps Charlie Hebdo’s message of satire and criticism, attacking extremists and showing the Prophet Mohammad as appalled by violence in the name of Islam, would not be lost on the people of France. But people have attacked mosques across France, and unless you listen to NPR, most media have allowed a least a few Islamophobic voices to broadcast live.

Je suis Charlie means more than being angry that people were killed. Je suis Charlie means understanding what the cartoonists and editors of Charlie stood for: secularism, not as a mandate of irreligion, but an essential freedom and opportunity for diversity, and humor, not as a tool of hatred, but one of social justice and accountability.

Je suis Charlie means avoiding descent to the terrorists’ level. Their act of hatred cannot inspire hatred in response. Je suis Charlie means continuing to laugh in the face of extremism. A task made much harder in the wake of murderous carnage. But we can all remember a time when something was taken from us senselessly. We can all remember a time when all we wanted was to attack those whom had taken it from us. And then we can all remember how much better it felt to laugh than to seethe in anger, to smile than to cry. That’s what Charlie brings to painful events, and we have to keep laughing.

Zac Bears is the Opinion & Editorial Editor and can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @zac_bears.