Barbaric, heinous, revolting, abhorrent, immoral, savage, vile.
These are just a few words that were used to accurately describe the terrorist attack in Paris on Wednesday, where 12 people were murdered at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. But let’s focus on six words that Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor-in-chief at the satirical weekly, said in 2013: “A drawing has never killed anyone.”
Charb, as he was known, was right then. He is right today, even as shocked loved ones mourn his heartbreaking death. He will be right tomorrow. His cartoons, unlike the extremists who stormed his workplace with AK-47s, never killed anyone.
The journalists at Charlie Hebdo were not blind to the danger of their work.
Their newsroom was firebombed in 2011, the day after the publication announced its next issue would be guest-edited by the Prophet Muhammad. Charb himself lived under police protection and by 2013 was on Al Qaeda’s “Most Wanted” list. But his mortal fears were muted by a devotion to freedom of expression.
As he once told Le Monde, while channeling Emiliano Zapata, he would rather “die standing than live on my knees.”
That’s what happened. Now we should all be up in arms.
There are countless satirical publications but few are as wilfully incendiary as Charlie Hebdo. Its last mocking tweet before the attack contained a cartoon of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the so-called Islamic State. Nine years ago, after Charlie Hebdo reprinted the contentious Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, the blowback was so fierce that France’s president at the time, Jacques Chirac, put out a statement that in part read: “Anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided.”
You could almost hear Voltaire spinning in his grave.
While Chirac was trying to defuse a potential powder keg, he was wrong to tuck the blame under the drawing boards of his law-abiding cartoonists. That craven impulse — let’s scold the safest targets and not do anything to outrage the unhinged lunatics — is a default factory setting in too many Western leaders who believe there are political points to be gained by looking sideways at shadowy threats, by attempting to see the best in the worst of humanity.
And it is precisely what Charb railed against for the past two decades.
Charlie Hebdo was an equal opportunity offender. The latest issue contains a debate about whether or not Jesus even existed. The editorial vision, at a time when the world seems to be roiled by religious strife and intolerance, was to thumb its 2D nose at political correctness, at our self-flagellating strictures. Hidden behind even the most offensive Charlie Hebdo drawing was a concept that’s been understood since the Enlightenment: if you believe in free speech, you support speech that you may disagree with and, yes, even find offensive.
Otherwise, newsflash: you don’t believe in free speech.
Or as Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell told the BBC on Wednesday: “We’ve got to stand up for the right to take the piss out of these monsters, these idiots, these fools, these posturing maniacs who strut around in their black gear as a kind of death cult trying to frighten us all.”
This is the timeless philosophy of any good satirist. And while satire in popular culture often feels like an empty distraction, it serves as a crucial release valve. It is an accelerant for rational thinking. An attack on a satirist, on any artist, whatever the alleged creative offense, is an attack on the fundamental values that should be cherished in any advanced society.
So we can only hope the events in France on Wednesday — barbaric, heinous, revolting, abhorrent, immoral, savage, vile — do not create a chill, a rollback, a lasting fear among the lampooning-class. We need more satire, not less. It was heartening to see publications, including Canada’s satirical Frank magazine, vow to publish some of Charlie Hebdo’s material.
We need an army of provocateurs, in redoubts across the planet, that is willing to take the piss out of the masked monsters who wrongly believe their beliefs are supreme.
Their convictions are not grounds for murder.
After all, a drawing has never killed anyone. And that is why the attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on us all.