When is satire bad taste?

Photographer: Nelson Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

Did Charlie Hebdo Mock the Dead Refugee Boy?

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo has become obsessed with Aylan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian toddler who became a symbol of Europe's refugee crisis. It came as a shock to many people who supported the publication after it was attacked by terrorists this year, and the social networks are filled with indignation. It's still the same Charlie, though, and it's doing a great job.

In the Sept. 2 issue of the magazine, I counted 10 cartoons depicting or referring to the dead boy. In the tradition of last January, when media outlets would describe Charlie Hebdo's cartoons of Prophet Muhammad but not actually publish them, I'll attempt to put some of these disturbing visuals into words.

Two overweight tourists standing on a Turkish beach, one eating an ice cream, with just the head of the drowned boy visible behind them. A voice comes from outside the frame: "If you could perhaps move a little bit."

Xenophobic French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen standing over the body of Aylan Kurdi, pointing out that the boy's clothes are in France's national colors -- blue, white and red.

A glamorous blonde relaxing with a cocktail in the patio of her villa is told to give shelter to a refugee child. "So he drowns in the pool? No thanks," she replies.

And then, of course, there are the two discarded cover ideas (the magazine traditionally publishes these on its last page). "So close to the goal," declares one depicting dead Aylan on the beach with a McDonald's poster towering over him, offering "Two kiddie meals for the price of one." If you're crying "enough," I know what you mean. Looking at just a few of these pictures prompted Peter Herbert, head of the U.K.'s Society of Black Lawyers to tweet: "Charlie Hebdo is a purely racist, xenophobic and ideologically bankrupt publication that represents the moral decay of France." He even threatened to report the weekly to the International Criminal Court for inciting hate speech. The #jesuischarlie Twitter hashtag is now home to countless tweets expressing outrage with the magazine's "mockery" of Aylan Kurdi. 

Dissenting voices were heard, too, but they were drowned in the chorus of condemnation. Charlie Hebdo is finally back where it was before January's attack, in which the brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi killed 11 people at the magazine's offices, decimating its staff, and wounded 11 more. It offends again, instead of drawing sympathy. I'm sure it feels like home to the editors and artists.

In January, the cartoonist Renald Luzier, known as Luz, who drew the cover of Charlie's first issue after the shooting, explained that the magazine's mission had always been "destroying symbols, breaking down taboos, bursting bubbles of fantasy." He added that the "symbolic weight" put on the surviving staffers' shoulders was difficult for him to bear. "It’s wonderful that people are giving us their support, but it’s going against Charlie’s cartoons," Luz said. 

If the people who now wax indignant about the Aylan Kurdi cartoons supported Charlie Hebdo last winter and joined demonstrations carrying "Je suis Charlie" signs, they clearly did it for the wrong reasons. The magazine was attacked for putting potent symbols through the grinder. It's done that again with the now-iconic photograph of the dead boy. As usual with Charlie, the message is transparent: Don't dare use this photograph to advertise shallow, ineffectual charity; don't be secretly dismissive because it was not your child and not a European child; don't trivialize Aylan Kurdi's death by turning it into a political cliche. "If you can look at the original photograph without averting your eyes but you can't look at these cartoons, there's something wrong with you," the artists tell their audience.

Charlie Hebdo is still resolutely leftist and pro-immigrant. The editorial in the latest issue praises Germany for agreeing to accept 800,000 refugees, though it points out the Germans might not be entirely altruistic, given their shrinking workforce and their need to clean up their reputation after "the little thing that happened between 1939 and 1945." But it has no kind words for France:

The French have been told and told that immigration is 'a chance,' but they don't really believe it and they secretly think it would have been much simpler if there were fewer people who wanted to come live 'with us.' The French are generous, humanist, open-hearted, but only up to a point. The only question is where that point is located.

It went on to recall how French xenophobes treated Jewish refugees in the early 1940s. And it waxed sarcastic about the Aylan Kurdi photograph's ability to bring about a miraculous change of heart. "This image is spoken of as a relic endowed with enormous powers, an icon that will bring back our faith and open our hearts," the editorial said. "It must be so, Christian Europe. A Europe that still believes in miracles."

As a father, I flinch at caricatures of dead children. But Charlie Hebdo's way is to pull no punches, and it's an honest way to tell the story of Europe's response to the growing influx of refugees. Modern-day icons lose their potency quickly. When they come back as harsh satire, they regain some of their healing qualities.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net