Last week, 12 people were killed when the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked by two gunmen. Ostensibly, it seems the motivation behind the attack was the magazine’s cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. It was a brutal incident that had no trouble garnering worldwide attention.
Plenty of people are saying plenty of things about the attack, but what managed to get my interest is the symbolism of the pen that has re-emerged from it. People are flocking to rallies and social media to raise a pen in solidarity with the victims of the attack. In many of the cartoons being drawn in tribute to Charlie Hebdo, the pen is depicted as a powerful and effective weapon against terrorism and oppression, a weapon that terrorists cannot hope to defeat with threats or attacks. All of this feeds into a familiar narrative that the pen is mightier than the sword.
On the one hand, it’s important not to let violence and intimidation silence the press, and the spread of ideas through writing and literature has helped lead to the downfall of tyranny and oppression in the greater scheme of history. I don’t dispute these important things, but I feel that narrative overlooks the tragedy of the situation.
We may not be silenced, but that doesn’t change the fact that 12 people were murdered. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is a sobering reminder that in the short run, the pen is a tool, not a weapon, and it won’t save your life from the guy with the sword — or gun, in this case. Words may outlive you, but for the man wielding the gun, this matters little. As we can see, the pen isn’t the only tool capable of effectively conveying a message.
Sadly, this is the kind of world we still live in. One where saying something someone else doesn’t like can be a good enough reason to get you killed. People shouldn’t be murdered for things they say, but that should be obvious.
What’s important to remember is the reality of this attack. It may be shocking that something like this could happen in the west, but it’s worth remembering that in other parts of the world, such atrocities are a more common occurrence. Being a journalist in Russia who says unflattering things about Putin could land you in a hospital with a nasty case of radiation poisoning. Being a journalist in Egypt could land you in jail after subjecting you though a mockery of a trial. Being a blogger in Saudi Arabia could get you flogged. The murders in Paris are just one piece of this grim and depressing picture, a picture where freedom of speech is a luxury that comes at a cost. In this case, the cost was 12 lives.