Jan 11, 2015

Hats Off To You, Charlie Hebdo

The heinous attack on Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine in Paris, was in the same spirit as the terror threats from North Korea over the film spoofing dictator Kim Jong-un.

Unlike Sony, however, Charlie Hebdo refused to cave. You have to give its staff real credit: Under dire threat, they continued to say what they wanted, terrorism be damned.

Editor-in-chief St├ęphane Charbonnier, among those gunned down today, ceaselessly defended his right to free speech, even after being placed on a list of al-Qaeda’s most wanted. His magazine's crude caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and lampooning of Islamic extremists made some accuse it of being a provocation.

But "Charb," as he was known, was quite right that this misses the larger point: Extremists can always find a pretext to justify their violence. Of the many cartoonists who expressed solidarity with his magazine yesterday, Australian political satirist David Pope captured that best.

He sketched a man draped in black, holding a smoking automatic gun, who addresses an invisible onlooker while the body of an unarmed man lies beside a bent pair of spectacles and a drawing. In the militant's word bubble? “He drew first.”

You do not kill people with cartoons. The idea that anyone or anything must be off-limits, with potentially deadly consequences, is anathema to the entire concept of free speech. The taboo was always the point.

There is no free speech if we lack the courage to exercise it. Just ask Salman Rushdie, whose novel “The Satanic Verses” made him the target of similar death threats.

Free speech should be something that all of society steps forward to protect. But all too often, this is left to the brave and the unpopular. We salute the people who died at Charlie Hebdo this week. By refusing to be intimidated, they paid the ultimate price for our principles. –Nj

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