The reprehensible attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is yet another example of terrorism’s war on ideas.
Twelve people were murdered in the magazine’s office in Paris. Four were some of France’s leading political cartoonists. Police officers were executed. Then, the masked terrorists sped off, a cowardly retreat from their victims, people who very publicly would sign their names to their work.
This most heinous of crimes is the first direct terror attack on a publication or broadcast outlet. Reporters, editors, satirists, cartoonists, radio and television commentators, and anyone else who practices opinion journalism are aware, on some level, of an element of the people they address may be unstable.
Hardly any of them, however, believes that their lives are in danger. Nor should they feel threatened merely by expressing their opinions.
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The right to express one’s opinion without fear is the most fundamental basis of the American experiment. The attack on it is not new.
Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg was murdered in 1984 by a listener for his political views. Author Salman Rushdie had to go into hiding after the publication of his great novel in 1988, “The Satanic Verses.” More recently, the far less serious movie, “The Interview,” elicited an Internet attack and threats of violence.
Opinions are commonly expressed in newspapers, magazines and television. For the most part, they are tolerated and debated civilly. People who express them are not hunted down and slaughtered, as the victims in Charlie Hebdo were.
The frontiers of free speech spread to the horizon in the United States. Not so in many other parts of the world. Dozens of journalists die each year. The radical terrorist Islamic State has beheaded reporters. Less well-known is that international cartoonists have been threatened, beaten, or have disappeared or been killed.
When the Danish newspaper Dagbladet ran a contest featuring cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, a radical Islamist reaction unleashed fatwahs. Several of the cartoonists went into hiding.
In 2011, the Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat was beaten and forced into exile by a group believed to have ties to President Bashir al-Assad. Threats are nothing new; the massacre of 12 workers in their offices is.
Sometimes, more mainstream journalists and artists find themselves aligned with practitioners who walk beyond the bounds of good taste and civility. Opinion journalists are out on the end of very long branch. But satirists such as those who drew cartoons for Charlie Hebdo and are on the periphery of speech need to be defended as vociferously, precisely because the permissible boundaries of speech keep shifting.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once noted that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. So too are threats to speech, art, and expression. King was assassinated because of his beliefs, which are commonly held today; they were not commonly held in 1955 when he began his trek.
Free speech, whether it’s in the United States, France or Syria is sacred and worth defending. The satirists and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo have tragically become more unwilling martyrs for the right to be able to safely express opinions, no matter how unsavory or unpopular.
The best way to combat the assault on free expression is more free expression. It’s the most effective weapon journalists, cartoonists and opinion writers have.