In the first two days after the heinous shooting of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris and the additional chain of terrorist attacks that followed, 15 places of Muslim worship were firebombed, shot at, or vandalized in France; since that time, another 112 instances of physical or verbal violence have been recorded against British Muslims, 9 of which involved schoolchildren; and in America, hundreds of movie-goers flocked to their local theatres in droves, high on a fresh wave of patriotism, to watch American Sniper.
After raking in more than $90 million in its first few weeks alone, the movie has already received several Oscar-nods and is being hailed as an American classic about a true American hero, despite being nothing more than a largely factually inaccurate movie commemorating the life and legacy of America’s most decorated trained murderer, Chris Kyle.
While previews for the movie show an anguished, homesick Kyle, Kyle’s own memoirs show no such thing; he repeatedly refers to Iraqis as “savages,” and shoots and kills over a hundred, including unarmed women and children, then boasts about these “accomplishments” in the name of “protecting America.” Their absence of regret could not be clearer; there is no anguish, no moral conflict, no regret—just a lust for killing.
But you have to hand it to Clint Eastwood, and the rest of the American Sniper team: With its carefully planned cinematography and Bradley Cooper’s skills on full display, the narrative they spin, though false, is downright damning. Eastwood and company successfully project an image of the Muslim as a type of monster; one of the opening scenes has a veiled mother in a black burqa sacrifice her own son as a suicide bomber. The trend continues throughout the movie—all but two of the Muslims turn out to be disgusting creatures willing to do sacrifice anything and everything to eradicate Western culture.
The fact that threats against Muslims have tripled since the movie came out only speaks to how successfully movies can still be used as blatant propaganda. For that’s exactly what a movie like American Sniper is—rather than using their power to point out the innumerable errors the United States made in Iraq, the movie paints a cliché yet convincing picture of a wounded warrior whose supposedly only sin was loving his country, making you feel like the bad guy for ever disagreeing with the war in the first place. It’s also a brilliant power play by Hollywood figureheads as we enter yet another election cycle where the memories of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to loom over our heads, and trust in the CIA and its methods of operation are pretty low. What better way to raise morale than by creating a movie that soothes your insecurities about American exceptionalism?
Beyond the carefully crafted illusion, however, the facts remain undeniable. But after pointing out the numerous falsehoods and fabrications in the movie, several journalists received rape and death threats for speaking their mind. This illuminates a painful double standard: criticize the caricature of the prophet of an overwhelmingly peaceful religion as a terrorist, and you’re clamping down on free speech; criticize the caricature of a shameless killer as a true American hero, on the other hand, you’re being hateful and unpatriotic, and ought to be condemned.
It’s easy for some to deny that there no double standard at all, and to make the argument that the difference between the Charlie Hebdo drawings and criticism of the American Sniper is that most Americans wouldn’t go on a shooting spree if a magazine slammed the movie. Then again, most of the approximately 1.6 billion Muslims around the world would and did refrain from shooting cartoonists as well, but that’s something we like to conveniently forget in our rush to characterize groups of people as either all good or all evil.
But the double standard is very much alive, and it’s clear when you extend the rhetoric in both situations to terrorist acts themselves: An invader of any kind in America, even under the cloak of “interventionism” would immediately be branded a terrorist, and it’s almost guaranteed that the United States would rally at the United Nations until action was taken and the nation behind the operation was condemned (just look at what we did to Russia after it violated another country’s sovereignty). But when Chris Kyle and the American military descend on and ravage Iraq, or terrorize civilians in other countries by conducting hundreds of drone strikes over foreign air space and end up killing both the guilty and the innocent? That’s just protecting Americans and fighting for love of country.
To brand all American soldiers as terrorists would be ridiculous—and to group all Muslims the same way is equally outrageous.
When it comes down to it, the real difference between the groups being targeted by the criticism in the two scenarios is their position in society at the time the criticism is being made: the crowd defending American Sniper is your average, mainstream white American patriot, well-established in society, the most marginalized they’ve ever felt is most likely that uncomfortable moment when their privilege is pointed out to them in a conversation that can be ended in under a minute. On the other hand, the targets of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in question (other cartoons have been equally offensive to other groups as well) are Muslims, who are already shoved to the side of French society and not permitted to wear religious garb such as the burqa. They’re a minority group making up about 8% of the total French population, yet they’re made to feel like second-class citizens in their own nation on a regular basis; the National Front, the third largest political party—despite being once linked to Nazi collaborators—has surged in popularity recent years. The intolerance isn’t restricted to France, either—all across Europe, anti-immigrant political parties such as the United Kingdom Independence Party, the Danish People’s Party, the Austrian Freedom Party, and the Italian Northern League, are riding the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment in the wake of the Paris attacks. That’s in addition to all the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant marches, like those staged by the supporters of the Pegida movement in Germany, and the growing number of attacks mentioned at the beginning of this article.
In short, they’re marginalized.
Satire, by definition, is “a way of using humor to show that someone or something is foolish, weak, bad,” and so on and so forth; it’s how Charlie Hebdo defends its work. But targeting, ostracizing, and pointing out the weaknesses of an already marginalized group isn’t satire; it’s targeted hate speech that’s meant to intimidate and alienate. If we tolerate hate speech in this case, we should readily accept the words of Neo-Nazis, members of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Westboro Baptist Church.
Or, we can acknowledge the stupidity of accepting any and all of the above.
We cannot hate under guise of satire, nor can we continue to pick and choose what is and isn’t permitted under the freedom of speech umbrella; the sad truth is that the world isn’t as inviting to all as we like to close our eyes and pretend it is—and right now, it’s the marginalized groups that are getting left out in the rain.