What are you getting when you buy this week’s issue of Charlie Hebdo? If you live in Paris you are purchasing what you might always buy on your weekly trip to the newsstand. If you live in Amsterdam you are getting what you might sometimes buy before hopping aboard a Thalys at Centraal Station; a nice way to brush up on the most searing French satire of the day. For you, the purchase may be routine. You likely delight in the value of being able to freely read whatever you choose from people who have the right and the wherewithal to challenge religious and political values. If you’re in this camp, you’re likely astute enough to know that opinions are just that – opinions.
If you’re like me and you live in New York then it’s to be assumed that purchasing an issue of Charlie Hebdo is not in your weekly routine. But this week you’ve decided to think about a publication and a topic that you don’t spend too much time fretting about otherwise.
I was tangentially aware of Charlie Hebdo when I lived in France in 2004. I’d pass it on a newsstand and I’d often quickly pause to see what the week’s illustration was depicting. I always found humour in the commentary but never took it too seriously. It was but one of many voices that seeped from the headlines of the publications before me.
Press freedom is one of the most sacred principles in our industry. An inability to speak freely and express one’s thoughts is no better than a muzzle on a dog. With our noses tuned to this, we journalists are like hounds set upon the world, expected to challenge those who would subvert our desire to sniff out injustice. But we’re aware of the dangers – and in a post-September 11 world we know those have become ever greater. Not just terrorists but some governments seek to thwart the media’s ability to say what they need to.
Today many New Yorkers will seek out Charlie Hebdo on their local newsstand. They’ll ask their friends. Some have asked me. They’ll make a trek across town, walk up to a rack of publications and grab a freshly minted issue. Maybe it’s because they’re curious to see one. Perhaps they won’t buy it but they’ll see it – and that’s the most important thing.
Whether those who seek out the current issue of Charlie Hebdo today are weekly readers or newcomers, this is about solidarity. It’s an instance when many are willing to say that the ideas we weald and our means of peaceful expression are far mightier than any gun could ever be. That’s a message that matters as much in Paris, Cairo and Moscow as it does right here in New York.
Tristan McAllister is Monocle’s transport editor.