Andrew Lilico is a Director and Principal of Europe Economics.
Following the wicked murders of Charlie Hebdo staff, a top trending hashtag on twitter was #JeSuisCharlie. What did that mean? As the Jewish Chronicle puts it: “On one level, it was nothing more than an expression of support for the victims which all decent people would share.” Well, yes, perhaps that is what it was in practice.
But if it was then that seem to me to be an abuse and watering down of the “I am X” meme. For surely “I am Charlie” was supposed to bring to our minds “I am Spartacus”. As everyone knows, in the classic movie “Spartacus”, when the Romans come to torture and execute Spartacus after his defeat and ask of him men which one of them is Spartacus, one and then many cry out “I am Spartacus”: volunteering to take or share in his grisly fate.
To declare “I am Charlie”, one must volunteer to share in the Charlie Hebdo staff’s fate. It is not merely a matter of expressing sympathy, empathy, or even solidarity with the magazine’s murdered staff. To do that, one must re-print or advertise the images that so offended Muslims (NB: they not only offended radical or Islamicist Muslims, but actually offended many perfectly respectable Muslims, also) or create one’s own new cartoons or irreverent jokes about Mohammed that would invite one’s murder by Al-Qaeda or ISIS. “I am Spartacus” is an important, pointed and dangerous concept.
And that’s part of the thing, here. “I am Spartacus” isn’t for everyone. Suppose you ran a business, as Stephane Charbonnier did. Would you happily volunteer for your colleagues to be murdered (as his were) in the service of your own political statement? Have your colleagues themselves volunteered for that?
Many folk have called on the newspapers to publish the Charlie Hebdo images. But if a newspaper would not otherwise publish cartoons of that sort if they were not about Mohammed, deeming them inappropriately offensive to some of their readers or others, what would they be doing if they published them now? Only inviting their own deaths. Will all those staff put in danger – and we see that that danger is not purely theoretical – be asked to agree to this?
Outside the UK, many newspapers have indeed taken this course, of which perhaps the most significant was Berliner Zeitung. Many US online outlets have done similar things – buzzfeed.com, thedailybeast.com. But in the UK not…so far.
We should not dilute the “I am Spartacus” act by pretending it is simply a vague expression of support. It is something much more radical and dangerous than that. But by the same token, the “I am Spartacus” act can only ever be super-erogatory (more than is asked). Those that do not want to place themselves or their colleagues or families in danger by engaging in “I am Spartacus” cannot be morally criticised. Perhaps others might be disappointed in them. Perhaps others might note that if you do not stand up to be counted now, then your safety is only temporary.
But many in the UK press have other things they wish to say than “I am Charlie”. They want to write about UKIP or the latest play or the environment or what will happen to the stock market tomorrow. They don’t want to be dead or to live under police protection for the rest of their lives, and they don’t want to inflict that fate upon their colleagues that have volunteered for it, either.
So, yes, I wish there were some way for the UK press to coordinate an “I am Spartacus” act – and perhaps some time they will. But by it’s nature such an act is not something you can criticise folk for not taking part in. No, UK press – and no, most of you on twitter, also – vous n’êtes pas Charlie – but that’s okay. I’m not – yet – Charlie either.