On Wednesday this week, men with guns walked into a magazine office and opened fire on the staff.
The magazine was Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical publication known for its irreverent depictions of global leaders, religious figures, and anyone the staff deemed newsworthy. Its commentaries and cartoons offended many (Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike), but in doing so the magazine’s team helped shine a light on the elephants in the room, providing a platform for questions and debate where the dirty laundry was already out on the table. Much of their content was not agreeable to my personal taste, but they had a right to publish it. They embodied a crucial part of the freedom of speech and press that allow a country to be free. They were killed by men who opposed that freedom.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo is a wake up call. As many commentators have already noted, this was not just an attack on a satirical magazine. This was an attack on journalism everywhere. This was an attack on the very notion of political and ideological freedom; the use of guns to influence content.
This isn’t the first time in the last few weeks that freedom of expression has been threatened with violence. In December, the world watched as Sony fumbled over the release of The Interview, a corporate PR nightmare that, despite the ramifications of international hacking terrorism, was diluted in the news by its more gossip-centered angles. In the case of Charlie Hebdo however, the attack was chillingly cold and there are no salacious distractions.
It could be easy to read about these terrible events and react with a knee jerk prayer of gratitude, “Thank God I live in America, where journalists can do their jobs without fear, where we have freedom of the press and freedom of speech.” That might be appropriate for a story about a totalitarian regime, but in this instance, the knee jerk prayer isn’t good enough. This wasn’t a third world country. France has freedom of speech. Paris is a global capital. The terrorists might as well have walked straight into the offices of The New Yorker.
Such a horrifying attack was no doubt intended as a warning. Journalists beware. Keep your mouths shut. Don’t push the envelope. Don’t ask the hard questions. This being the case, it is even more crucial that the role of Charlie Hebdo does not die with its staff. Freedom and justice rely on people who speak out, people who question and reason and search for truth. This role does not end with journalists. This role must be played by everyone.
The names of the murdered journalists include editor Stephane Charbonnier, cartoonists Jean Cabut, Bernard Verlhac, Georges Wolinski, and Philippe Honore, copy editor Moustapha Ourrad, and columnists Bernard Maris and Elsa Cayat, among others. These martyrs died for their belief in the right to be bold, the right to be contrary, the right, as the saying goes, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” They died believing in the right to dialogue and debate.
Gratitude for our freedoms in America can so often be a passive emotion. Terrible moments like these however, make it clear that gratitude for our freedoms is not enough. We must be willing to fight to preserve them when they come under attack. We must be willing to stand up, as the team at Charlie Hebdo was so used to standing, to ask the hard questions, and to preserve freedom of speech not only for ourselves, but for those who offend us as well.
ABOVE IMAGE: Charlie Hebdo staff in 2006; Cabut and Charbonnier, front, and Verlhac, with foot raised, were killed. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES