I am not Charlie. By that, I don't mean to say that I don't stand in solidarity, symbolically at least, with the folks at the French publication Charlie Hebdo who were murdered last week by Islamic radicals. I do stand with them, symbolically. And I don't mean to say they weren't brave. They were certainly that.
What I mean is that I am not that brave. I don't know how other editors felt last Wednesday when they heard the news. I know only how I felt. It shook me to the marrow of my bones. For a split second, my body went cold. I probably turned white. My first thought wasn't about standing up to terrorists who seek to quell free-expression; it was I don't want to die.
Like many others, I went to Twitter to document my thoughts. "I'm trying to get my head around the willingness to die for journalistic freedom, feeling lucky that I don't have to make that commitment," I wrote. Part of me regretted doing so, because I drew attention to myself. Almost immediately, someone suggested that CityBeat should reprint one of Charlie Hebdo's provocative cartoons lampooning Muslim fundamentalism.
I didn't respond. I began soul-searching. What had I become in my middle age? I'm the editor of a brash alternative weekly—I'm supposed to be the ballsy one. The younger me, the fearless cub reporter, would probably have yelled, "Damn the torpedoes!" and enthusiastically backed the idea of reprinting the cartoons. But that cub reporter was not responsible for other people. Oh, and, also, that cub reporter wouldn't have been among prime targets of a retaliatory attack. I could have said that while the Charlie Hebdo editors and cartoonists are certainly valiant crusaders for free expression, their work also contains elements of racism, so it's not that simple. But if I'm being honest, I'm saying that it was more about not dying.
Within minutes of that exchange on Twitter, I was asked to appear on KPBS radio and TV to talk about the massacre from a journalism perspective. Oh, great. More soul-searching. Much of what I had to say was about editors' and publishers' responsibility to protect innocent people—not only their editorial staffs, but also the people who sell ads and work in production. Not everyone who works in the media is willing to die for their employer, or for a cause, no matter how lofty.
After the radio segment, I tweeted, "Sounds like I'm getting timid in my old age. #existentialcrisis."
That hashtag at the end wasn't simple throwaway humor. As I've gotten older, I've grown increasingly existential. That is, more and more, I'm questioning the meaning of human existence. I've never been exposed to religion on a personal level. I have no concept of God; I can only try to comprehend others' religious orientations, a task at which I typically fail. Religion rarely makes sense to me, and the brutality and cruelty that occur in its name anger me and make me inclined to mock it (which factors into my opinion of Charlie Hebdo). I can hope for an afterlife—because finality freaks me out—but I ain't counting on it.
So, for me, the search for meaning is limited to life in the here and now. I have to make the best of this fleeting, microscopic existence however I can. Basically, I have to have as good a time as possible while I'm here, for as long as possible. And I want the people around me to live long, entertaining lives.
That makes the list of things I'm willing to die for pretty short. I like to think I'd take a bullet to save the life of someone I love. Beyond that? Hmm. Not sure I'm willing to pack it in for a concept or a principle, and even if I am, I'm going to make damn sure everyone around me is, too. This is why I don't think the media that have opted against republishing the cartoons are cowards.
CityBeat occasionally mocks religion—we've poked fun at fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Muslims, orthodox Catholics and orthodox Jews. You never know whether a deranged, fanatical San Diegan will be set off by something he or she reads in these pages. But chances are, we'll never be violently attacked; this is all likely just a lot of mental hand-wringing on my part.
Alright, that's enough. To end, I'll just say that I'm sorry—sorry that such ugliness and pain and sorrow and death happens so often for such stupid, meaningless reasons. I hope I never contribute to it.