The reprehensible attack on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo is yet another example of terrorism’s war on ideas.
Twelve people were murdered in the newspaper’s office in Paris on Wednesday morning. Four were among 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 not the first direct terror attack on a publication or broadcast outlet, though it is one of the worst in recent times. Journalists in Latin America in the last few decades know all too well what it is like to be targeted by extremists. Reporters, editors, satirists, cartoonists, radio and television commentators, and anyone else who practices opinion journalism are aware, on some level, that an element of the people they address may be unstable.
Hardly any of them, however, believes that their lives are in danger. That is especially true in the U.S., where journalists are rarely targeted for violence for what they report.
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The right to express one’s opinion without fear is the most fundamental basis of democratic society, in this country or elsewhere. The attack on it is not new.
Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg was murdered for his political views in 1984 by a listener. Author Salman Rushdie had to go into hiding after the publication of his great novel in 1988, “The Satanic Verses.” The far less serious work, “The Interview,” elicited an Internet attack and threats of violence ostensibly because of its depiction of the fictional assassination of North Korea leader Kim Jong Un.
Opinions are commonly expressed in U.S. newspapers, digital publications, and television. For the most part, they are tolerated and debated civilly. People who express them should not be 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 network Islamic State has publicly beheaded reporters. Less well known is that international cartoonists have been regularly threatened and beaten, or have disappeared or been killed.
In 2005, when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, a radical Islamist reaction unleashed fatwas. Several of them 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 people 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. The far twigs of that branch are inhabited by publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and far less secure.
But satirists who 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 become unwilling martyrs for the right to be able to safely express opinions, no matter how unsavory or unpopular.
In the hours after the attack, people in Brazil, Portugal, Canada, Albania, and many other places produced signs that read, “Je Suis Charlie.” The best way to combat the assault on free expression is more free expression. It’s the most effective weapon that journalists, cartoonists and opinion writers have.