Charlie Hebdo has upset quite a few people with its caricature of the painful image of Aylan al-Kurdi, the tiny boy who washed up on a Turkish beach, his little face in the waves, his tiny arms stretched out behind him. Negative reactions tend to condemn Charlie Hebdo in general, some expressing regret for having supported the paper after its editorial staff was slaughtered in January.
— Naheed E Hayat (@NaheedEHayat) September 14, 2015
— Avisek(Avi)Senapati (@aviseksenapati) September 17, 2015
— A.K.M. Wahiduzzaman (@Wahiduzzaman21) September 16, 2015
Like a lot of Americans, I was not Charlie last year. There was no question of the horror of the attacks; I was sickened by the violence, frightened by the implications, and mourned the loss of the writers. But I stopped short of changing my profile picture or attending a rally.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a #jenesuispasCharlie — my opinion wasn’t that formed. But I am a firm believer in the power of political correctness and their cartoons had always made me uncomfortable. I saw a few caricatures (particularly one of Christiane Taubira) that at first sight struck me as plain racist. Instead of looking closer, I looked away.
So when I searched for these latest controversial drawings, I was nervous. Seeing the photo itself had been bad enough. I cried. I fought the urge to wake my own sleeping children just to hold them. I couldn’t get it out of my head for days, and frankly I didn’t want to think about it again, especially in the context of entertainment.
With these drawings, though, it’s impossible not to understand that Charlie Hebdo is not out to entertain. They aren’t looking for the satisfying “BOOM!” of a Jon Stewart take-down. They are looking for the uncomfortable silence of Steven Colbert viciously roasting the President of the United States. To his face. On live TV. They don’t want you to laugh, they want you to cringe.
One caricature is simple: “Christians walk on water,” says the one on the left, “while Muslim children drown.”
“So close to making it,” says the other. The unmistakable shape of Aylan al-Kurdi’s body is gently rendered in the foreground, with a representation of Europe just on the horizon: a terrifyingly grotesque McDonald’s ad. The billboard speaks of consumerism, of a society that manages to feed its own children, even too much, and head cheerfully into holiday shopping season, while others flee their homes and endure terrifying weeks of travel only to die before making it to the land of “2 Happy Meals for the Price of One!”
It is so obvious looking at these drawings that Charlie Hebdo also cried for Aylan al-Kurdi. Then they went a step further. They, and it must be said, many other artists and cartoonists, put that image into the context of American and European privilege, comfort and complacency, calling out a system that lets people on one side of the fence thrive, while people like al-Kurdi won’t survive to see their fourth birthdays. All of that in one panel.
The smack-in-the-face is for us, not for the victims. Some will get it, and of course some will turn away at first sight, like I did before. Either way, an image that had likely all but disappeared from our various feeds, that we’d probably gladly filed away under “horrible things that happened during my lifetime,” has been resurrected and is everywhere once again, and we have Charlie Hebdo to thank for that.