The symmetry: Charlie Hebdo

[ by Charles Cameron — my apologies for an earlier incomplete draft, quickly withdrawn — first of two, on loose cannonry and mirror imagery — second will deal with recent events in Benghazi ]



Charlie Hebdo recently published some cartoons featuring the prophet…

Okay, I’m always on about symmetry.

I posted a piece titled Messianic symmetries on ZP a while back, noting that both Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu can be viewed as exercising “leadership that makes decisions out of messianic feelings” — the quote comes from an unimpressed ex-Shin Beth director describing Bibi; Ahmadinejad makes the case for his own Mahdist leabings quite well himself.

Symmetry seems like an important analytic category to me, either because it’s there in the build of the world, or because it’s there in the build of the mind. Either way, I think we should take careful notice of symmetries.

Asymmetries I’ll talk about in my next post.


What about the cartoon above, right? It’s clearly based on the photo above, left, which shows Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, holding his magazine with its offensive cartoons / vindication of free speech. And the suggestion is clear that he’s some kind of suicide bomber.

But who is he blowing up, exactly? Himself, and perhaps his staff and anyone else who happens to be within a few yards of his office at the time? France, Europe, the western world — the world itself? And how much irony should we read into the cartoon portrait?

They may have learned the technique from the Tamil Tigers, but these days, in the immediate wake of widespread rioting over the video clip and in the context of someone publishing cartoons that satirize the prophet, it’s clearly Islamist suicide bombers who provide the model for the cartoon of the cartoonist above.

Tit for tat? An eye for an eye? You’re just setting yourself up for a fatwa like Salman Rushdie?


Incendiary rhetoric on one side leads to incendiary behavior on the other, validating the incendiary rhetoric and making the escalation to incendiary behavior all the more probable.

Some of the incendiary rhetoric has its origin in holy books, which also preach peace.

There are Coptic Christians utterly blindsided by the virulence of the video, attributed to one of their number. There are Libyan Muslims utterly blindsided by the virulence of the attack on the US Embassy, attributed to some of their own.


I want to focus not on the specifics of the topic, but on the symmetry.

One writer, observing the partition of India and Pakistan, wrote:

The rioters brought the train to a stop. Those who belonged to the other religion were methodically picked out and slaughtered. After it was all over, those who remained were treated to a feast of milk, custard pies and fresh fruit.

Before the train moved off, the leader of the assassins made a small farewell speech: “Dear brothers and sisters, since we were not sure about the time of your train’s arrival, regretfully we were not able to offer you anything better than this most modest hospitality. We would have liked to have done more.”

Commenting on this paragraph, Ali Sethi wrote recently in the New Yorker:

That is all there is: murder—methodical and quick—followed by a feast and an ingratiating speech. Note the withholding of tags: we don’t know the location of the massacre or the religion of the killers. All we have is a spurt of base instincts.

The point here is that whenever you see a symmetry of opposites, it’s worth considering that symmetry in the abstract, as well as weighing the particular issues that drive your own side or the other.

That, I’d suggest, is one of the implications of that Paul van Riper remark I’m fond of quoting:

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