Charlie Hebdo’s leaders were much, much braver than most of us; maddeningly, preposterously and — in the light of their barbarous end — recklessly brave. The kind of impossibly courageous people who actually change the world. As George Bernard Shaw noted, the “reasonable man adapts himself to the world while the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself”, and therefore “all progress depends upon the unreasonable man”. Charlie Hebdo was the unreasonable man. It joined the battle that has largely been left to the police and security services.
It is an easy thing to proclaim solidarity after their murder and it is heartwarming to see such a collective response. But in the end — like so many other examples of hashtag activism, like #bringbackourgirls campaign over kidnapped Nigerian schoolchildren — it will not make a difference, except to make us feel better. Some took to the streets but most of those declaring themselves to be Charlie did so from the safety of a social media account. I don’t criticise them for wanting to do this; I just don’t think most of us have earned the right.
To be Charlie you have to be ready to defy real death threats and firebomb attacks; to press on, like the murdered journalists, in the face of patent risks to your life while working under police protection (the dead included two officers). It is to continue publishing cartoons and jokes that you know will only inflame people who already need little incitement to kill. It is to hold your life and the fears of your family less dear than the absolute principle of freedom. It is to be so determined to fight the fascism of fundamentalists that you keep on publishing when all rational thought tells you to stop. These people were not just satirists; they were freedom fighters wilfully agitating a foe they knew to be deadly.
But the rest of us, like me, who sit safely in an office in western Europe — or all those in other professions who would never contemplate taking the kind of risks those French journalists took daily — we are not Charlie. We are just glad that someone had the courage to be.