Today we mark the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 terrorist attacks on the London transport system, which killed 52 people. It's also exactly six months since the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, in which 12 people were murdered.
The public response to both these outrages was an overt show of defiance to the terrorists. In the days after the London bombings people shared 'We Are Not Afraid' images and continued to ride the tube. Immediately after the Paris attacks, 'Je Suis Charlie' became a message of solidarity and a statement that we will not be scared into silence.
The Paris killings also inspired artists to pick up their pens, pencils and paint brushes. Some of the most eloquent responses to the tragedy were not words, but pictures. A new book, Draw The Line Here, which brings together over a hundred such cartoons, will be launched today in London.
The collection consists of dozens of individuals' immediate reaction to the Charlie Hebdo atrocity - a quick and sometimes visceral first response to the events. It is a diverse selection: religion, politics, immigration, art, nationality are all touched upon, along with a few meta-cartoons that express the difficulty in responding to a complex, interwoven set of issues.
However, two themes appear repeatedly. The first is the black balaclava of the terrorist - a menacing yet somehow compelling image. Whether it is Jihadi John in Syria or the Paris gunmen, the masked face of the assassin has already become shorthand for murderous intolerance. Cartoonists love such motifs of course, and there is something pleasing about the sketches that ridicule the men in these combat outfits. Anything that counters the glorification of this combat-chic is a welcome public service.
The second theme is that of a writing implement as a weapon. Pencils that counter the gun barrel, or pens held aloft like a crusader's sword.
Cartoon by Chris Burke, used with permission
Such images are a form of wish fulfilment - if only a pen or a brush could really stop bullets. But they are also visual mantras, an assertion of the well-worn phrase that 'the pen is mightier than the sword'. As such, I think these cartoons are the most necessary in the collection. We must perpetually reassert the primacy of creation over destruction; the value of writing over fighting. Open dialogue can counter the warped, grotesque beliefs of the extremists... but only when enough people believe this to be true does it become a reality.
It is important to remember that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists are not the only people to be attacked for what they have drawn. The censor is not always a masked man with a gun - sometimes he is a judge, a cleric, a policeman or a head of state. For example, in February the Iranian cartoonist Atena Farghadani was sentenced to 12 years in prison for drawing cartoons of politicians. In March, Turkish cartoonists Bahadır Baruter and Özer Aydoğan were fined after satirising the president. And in Malaysia the popular cartoonist Zunar is awaiting trial on charges of sedition after he mocked the judiciary. The PEN International case list carries hundreds of names of men and women, from Algeria to Zimbabwe, who are regularly detained, tried and imprisoned because they laugh at power.
The profits from Draw the Line Here will be shared between the Charlie Hebdo victims' fund and English PEN's free speech campaigns for embattled writers and artists around the world. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect to this book, therefore, is that the contributors have used their own freedom of expression to defend the free speech rights of others. It is a positive and creative response to a moment of destruction, and should give us cause for hope.
This post is an adaptation of the introduction to Draw The Line Here. a collaboration between CrowdShed, the Pro Cartoonists Organisation, and English PEN. You can order your copy of the book via the Great British Book Shop.
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