Charlie Hebdo trial: struggling to find the right words

For the last four weeks judges have been hearing evidence in the trial dealing with the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. In January 2015 attackers with Islamist motives killed twelve members of the magazine's editorial staff, a police office and four hostages at a kosher supermarket. Commentators discuss how important it is in the trial to first find the right words for the perpetrators and their deeds.

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Libération (FR) /

When our language reaches its limits

Writing in libération, historian Virginie Sansico comments on how difficult it is to express the crime in words:

“The legal term 'murder' is replaced by 'attack' and 'terrorism', whose definitions are more fluid. There was talk of a 'killing spree' for the simple act of killing, of a 'shooting', which emphasises the criminal aspect, of a 'massacre' and 'carnage', which refer to acts of extreme violence. A witness who was present on the rue Nicolas-Appert on January 7, 2015, preferred to talk about the 'thing' that happened that day. In doing so she highlighted the limits of the vocabulary of law and history when terrorist violence breaks into everyday life, but also the difficulties this trial faces at the beginning of its fourth week, when it comes to finding its own words and writing its own history.”

Le Soir (BE) /

The attackers were people like us

Journalist Jean-François Kahn, who testified in the Charlie Hebdo trial, disagrees in Le Soir with those who describe the perpetrators as barbarians:

“'Barbarians'? ... So it's not their fault. They weren't like us but half human, half beast. It was their barbarism that turned them into criminals. In fact this barbarism was guilty, and they were almost innocent. But they weren't! They weren't barbarians. They were fellow human beings. People like us, who, like so many others who were 'like us' throughout history, were infected by the terrible, deadly virus of fanaticism. ... By this virus that can turn anyone - anyone - into a killer, a murderer, capable of committing genocide, to whom millions of Jews, infidels, unbelievers, schismatics, heretics, dissenters and revisionists have fallen victim.”

El Periódico de Catalunya (ES) /

Tolerance can hurt

Satire really puts freedom of expression to the test, writer Emma Riverola comments in El Periódico de Catalunya:

“I am not Charlie Hebdo. Its caricatures often arouse emotions in me that by no means make me smile. A girl and a boy holding hands on their way to school, with coffins on their backs instead of backpacks [and wearing masks, as seen on the title page of August 26 in reference to the start of the school year]. 'Will they finish the year?' ... But it is in the defence of this abhorrent caricature or the silly rhymes of Valtònyc [the rapper convicted of insulting the Spanish royal family] that the right to freedom of expression unfolds its full meaning. Even if it upsets or hurts you. Accepting it is a vaccination against intolerance and blind hatred. Because in the end, faced with the terror of weapons, I inevitably am Charlie!”

Jyllands-Posten (DK) /

We're not prepared to take the risk anymore

To mark the start of the trial in Paris Charlie Hebdo has reprinted Mohammed cartoons on its cover page, including some that were originally commissioned by the newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The Danish paper is refraining from such gestures and explains:

“We dare to be frank now: it's too dangerous. The decision is based on the fear of what could happen. However, fear is a legitimate feeling. Jyllands-Posten has lived with constant security assessments by the intelligence service for 15 years. We know what it means to have a siege mentality. But the fact that we give higher priority to other things does not mean that we no longer defend freedom of expression. ... Our colleagues at Charlie Hebdo paid the highest price for defending freedom of expression. For this we honour them today.”

Causeur (FR) /

Expecting Muslims to be able to take criticism is a sign of respect

The intellectual climate in France has changed, Causeur points out:

“There is a sense of disillusionment among the magazine's followers. ... Emmanuel Macron yesterday stressed the importance of the right to blasphemy. But the idea that one shouldn't criticise religions - and especially this one - is gaining ground among politicians, journalists and believers of all faiths, on the grounds that it stigmatises populations that are already discriminated against. And that is doubly true for cartoons, they say, as they can provoke violent reactions. ... Of course, insulting Islam or any other belief is not an end in itself. But it is those people who believe that Muslims are unable to endure the 'pain of freedom' (Alain Finkielkraut) who are truly offending them.”

Večer (SI) /

The hydra has not been defeated

Večer points out that the danger of terrorist attacks has not faded:

“The fact that there have been no major attacks in recent years does not mean that terrorism has been stopped. There are still reasons for terrorism. The United States and other superpowers continue to trample across the world with impunity, inequality is increasing and left and right-wing extremists are growing stronger. The main Islamist terrorist organisations no longer exist, but new ones are probably already emerging somewhere. Al Qaeda disappeared in 2011 with the death of Osama bin Laden, the Islamic state with the suicide of hunted caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October last year. But somewhere in the world there are already new bin Ladens and al-Baghdadis. And they are just waiting for their time to come.”

Le Figaro (FR) /

Harmful tendency towards self-censorship

Attitudes towards freedom of the press have changed in the past five years, notes musician and dramaturge Benjamin Sire in Le Figaro:

“Five years after the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo journalists, the spirit of Charlie Hebdo is being questioned more than ever, as is the principle of the cartoon itself. This is evidenced by the recent and troubling decision by the New York Times to remove editorial cartoons from its pages to avoid shocking public opinion. ... Unfortunately, if you refuse to add fuel to the fire with mockery or caricature, you roll out the red carpet for all censors and supporters of totalitarianism, which in the end often turns against you.”

Libération (FR) /

Strengthen democracy against obscurantism

The spirit of Charlie Hebdo must continue to be upheld, Liberation agrees:

“Yes, we can make fun of religions, all religions, caricature them, ridicule them. And yes, this freedom of expression must remain one of the pillars of our democracy. ... Does that mean we needn't be vigilant about the rise of Islamophobia? No, because it is real. ... The trial that is now beginning is historic, despite the absence of the three killers who were shot by the police, and despite the continuing uncertainty as to who ordered the attack. The contribution that the trial will make to the shared writing of a painful memory, the quest - however arduous - for the truth and the judgment that is handed down must have only one goal: to strengthen our democracy against all forms of obscurantism.”