In response to the vicious murder of 10 artists working for Charlie Hebdo and 2 police officers protecting the satirical magazine’s offices, CEO of the Center for Inquiry Ronald A. Lindsay said, “We are heartbroken by the unthinkable and cowardly attack at the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris today, and outraged that such a barbaric act was a response to journalists and satirists exercising their right to free expression.”
Lindsay is no stranger to the fight for free speech. His center’s publication Free Inquiry was the first in the US (and for a while, the only) to publish the Mohammed cartoons from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten which prompted global riots – cartoons that Charlie Hebdo also reprinted alongside their own dryly funny drawings of Islam’s prophet lamenting the difficulty of being loved by idiots.
The only problem with Lindsay’s statement, and really with the world, is that this morning’s assassination isn’t “unthinkable.” On an emotional level, it’s all too easy to imagine this kind of devastating news despite the gut-punch of shock that accompanies it. On a practical level, it’s been all too thinkable since the firebombing of the Charlie Hebdo offices in 2011, if not since the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh for making Submission in 2004, if not since the one before that or the one before that and the one before that.
There are, and have always been, small-minded people so fearful of the sound of laughter in their vicinity that they use weapons to silence it. Some of them march with an all-powerful being at their backs to kill people who draw funny pictures, but singular events like this one must be universalized.
Yesterday, someone bombed a NAACP office in Colorado because he thought killing strangers would send a message that didn’t get through 50 years earlier in Birmingham. The author of a book satirizing incongruous Old Testament beliefs was sent death threats a few months ago by someone calling themselves “God’s Little Helper” and spouting verse-like nonsense. We all recently lived through a cyber attack on Sony because of a movie where an actor playing Kim Jong-un sharts himself. People with self-applied labels of all kinds will attack others for perceived slights and hand-drawn offensiveness, and we must stand up to all of them. Art and commentary – especially the kind that challenges, questions and mocks authority of all kinds – cannot be sidelined by murderous thugs and bullies, and any attack on instruments of free speech is an attack on all of them.
The team at Charlie Hebdo was doing (and I imagine will continue to do) brave work that, in a better world, wouldn’t require bravery. Killing artists over your “faith” says a lot more negative about your faith (and to a larger audience) than those artists ever could.
As a corrective, a lot of people are passing around the late Christopher Hitchen’s gasoline-twirling appeal to common sense, “The Case for Mocking Religion,” written in response to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons in 2006. It’s a piece that deserves regular revisits, but I think the key line comes after Hitchens contextualizes the event by reminding us that a powerful US television network (CNN) blurred out cartoons from an obscure newspaper in Denmark for fear of who might be offended. The punch line?
“We cannot possibly adjust enough to please the fanatics, and it is degrading to make the attempt.”
It’s easy to see that the crew at Charlie Hebdo would have nodded their heads enthusiastically in agreement. After their offices were bombed three years ago, they responded with this cover:
It reads: “Love is stronger than hate.”
They sweetly lampooned destruction aimed at ending them, and they continued to create work that agitated with a smile. It’s important to remember that on days like these. Through the heartache, that defiant spirit deserves a loud round of applause and a chuckle. Just look at all that saliva.
Freedom of speech is one of the most difficult to keep sacred because it means defending things we don’t want to hear. It’s a natural human instinct to bristle at the challenging. Some take that too far, some use their power to silence those voices, but it’s my sincere hope that Charlie Hebdo finds a way to rebuild and continue entertaining with its silly pictures. It would send a message many times louder than the one sent today, and the world could use a good laugh.