On Pencils And Guns

You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.
Al Capone

The truth is, it isn’t just pencils.
The truth is, it isn’t just pens.
The truth is, it isn’t just pictures and words,
As we look through the media’s lens.

When we look at a much broader context
(although “context” we truly abhor)
Though it’s pen versus sword for this skirmish
It’s been bombs versus bombs for the war.

Long-time readers both know that I have long been an advocate of looking at the bigger picture. Sometimes that takes a little while; in the immediate aftermath of tragedy, the focus is understandably narrow. We look for “the” cause, in a universe where no events have single, simple causes.

The simple narrative, illustrated in dozens, scores of political cartoons, has been that of the pen versus the bullet. In the narrow focus, it is absolutely true. The Charlie Hebdo people were armed with pens, and their assassins were armed with guns.

When we pull the frame back and look at the broader picture, neither side is relying only on pencils and pens. The killings last week were a skirmish in an asymmetrical war, fought with guns, drones, and IEDs, as well as computers, cartoons and editorials. No one considers themselves the bad guys; there are always past reasons for present action. From a RedFlag article, “Charlie Hebdo and the hypocrisy of pencils”:

It is a stirring narrative repeated ad nauseam in newspapers across the globe. They have been filled with depictions of broken pencils re-sharpened to fight another day, or editorials declaring that we will defeat terrorism by our refusal to stop mocking Islam.

It is well past time to call bullshit. Knight’s cartoon made the point exceptionally clear, but every image that invoked the idea that Western culture could and would defend itself from Islamist extremism by waging a battle of ideas demonstrated the same historical and political amnesia.

Reality could not be more at odds with this ludicrous narrative.

For the last decade and a half the United States, backed to varying degrees by the governments of other Western countries, has rained violence and destruction on the Arab and Muslim world with a ferocity that has few parallels in the history of modern warfare.

It was not pencils and pens – let alone ideas – that left Iraq, Gaza and Afghanistan shattered and hundreds of thousands of human beings dead. Not twelve. Hundreds of thousands. All with stories, with lives, with families. Tens of millions who have lost friends, family, homes and watched their country be torn apart.

I do not mean to assign blame; blame is far too simple, when causation is complex, long-term, interwoven and (sometimes deliberately) obscured. When we blame one group, whether “them” or “us”, we ignore all the other factors, some of which we might control. I am reminded of a line from Bill Nye’s latest book–“sometimes you have to pick up other people’s trash to make the world a better place.” But we would rather find someone to blame… well, as long as it is not us.

This is a depressing state of affairs. I might owe you a less depressing perspective.

There is good news. No, really–if we are to believe Stephen Pinker, anyway. When we look at the actual data, not what is immediately available to us via 24/7 competing news networks, we are actually “living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.

I suppose we are doomed to view everything through our particular set of lenses, that look for simple causation, for agreement with principles we already hold. It’s not easy to reframe, but perhaps we, in the long run, do learn from our experience.


  1. CatMat says

    It may just be drawings in ink
    Or text that occasionally rhymes
    The message, though, says that we stink
    or are clearly behind the times

    We really hate being forced to think
    It’s not like these shootings are crimes!

  2. Cuttlefish says

    It’s strange–I have often found that my point of view is often seen as excusing criminals’ actions, when the bottom line is I would much prefer preventing an attack to punishing an attacker after the fact. The more open-eyed we are about causal factors, the more power we have to prevent.

  3. CatMat says

    When jokes or, say news or cartoons tell everyone a story
    That clashes with what my [fill blank here] authority holds true
    It’s time to pull back to the methods everyone finds hoary
    And do what any true [blank here, too] disciple would do.

    The message is out there, so that’s begone and irrelevant
    See, the problem is that malevolent messenger’s still free
    To spread offence among believers mostly benevolent
    So the answer clearly can be nothing but a shooting spree.

  4. sumdum says

    I think if you dig some you will find that Charlie Hebdo was also opposed to these senseless wars, it in no way excuses or explains the attack on them.

  5. Anne Fenwick says

    I read some background on the Charlie killers and what really stands out is that regardless of whether the pen is mightier than the sword/gun/bomb, word of mouth and sheer human to human contact are mightier than the pen.

    Those guys were from the margins of society, not just poor and descended from immigrants, but for one reason or another, they had lost their parents, they had few prospects, little education, no grounding in purpose or sense of identity, they’d been in jail… They didn’t have much in the way of religion either, initially, or politics. The culture of the pen, so important in France, was largely a closed book (literally) to them. They were recruited by a charismatic individual who paid direct personal attention to them, his efforts re-enforced by radicals in the jails, and true, his ability to capitalize on their ethnicity and nominal religion probably made it easier. But I’m not sure whether even at the end, they could easily have articulated an argument like the otherwise perfectly valid one you made above.

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