A brutal, cowardly attack Wednesday on the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo — famous for its blistering cartoons — left 12 people dead. In the aftermath, we in free Western societies have to ask ourselves: What kind of world are we going to live in? Will we allow the intolerant radical Islamic bullies to decide for us what we can read and what we can’t?
How do we respond?
As an editorial cartoonist working in a small Southern town in America — Augusta, Ga., — it’s easy for me to feel insulated from the attacks 4,000 miles away. But we live in a global society, and this attack hit me on a personal level.
I was fortunate enough this past fall to travel to Paris and to a little town called St.-Just-le-Martel in the French countryside, where the townsfolk throw an annual bash celebrating France’s long love affair with the art of cartooning, illustration and caricature. It’s a wonderful event, and it’s clear that the French people love their cartoonists and their art. They crowd in by the hundreds to meet the artists and maybe get their caricatures drawn.
It was there that I was fortunate enough to meet one of the victims in this latest attack, cartoonist Georges Wolinski, by all accounts a rock star in France. Like all the artists there, he was funny, pleasant and gracious with his time. For him and the other 11 innocents to die in this way is beyond appalling.
This is not just an attack on Charlie Hebdo, but an attack on all of us who hold dear the values of freedom of expression, no matter where we live. Charlie Hebdo is irreverent, anti-religious and occasionally vulgar. The writers and cartoonists routinely anger many of its readers. Most notably, in 2007, it reprinted the Prophet Muhammad cartoons that were first published in a Danish newspaper that so outraged the Muslim community. In 2011, Charlie Hebdo “invited” Muhammad to be guest editor and showcased a caricature of him on the cover.
Since then, it’s been reported that several of the editors and cartoonists have lived with constant death threats. For every cartoonist I have ever met, these occupations are not just jobs — they are lifelong obsessions. I know I have never considered cartooning a life-threatening career. But this is the world we live in now — where hooded gunmen murder journalists and cartoonists in cold blood because they are angered by the printed word and a published drawing.
How do we respond? It would be much easier — and safer — to shut up, put the pen down and walk away, hopefully angering nobody. The editors and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo certainly could have done that at the first sign of trouble. The offices were under constant police protection. One of the slain was a police officer on duty. Another of the dead, Stephane Charbonnier, the publishing director and one of the cartoonists, was under special high-profile protection, according to The Daily Telegraph of London. The Telegraph quotes Charbonnier’s attorney as saying, “The threats were constant. It was frightening.”
Yet Charbonnier persisted, refusing to give in to fear. In the end it cost him his life.
As we enter the futuristically-sounding year of 2015, we should be focused on the bigger issues of peace, hunger and poverty, and how to address them with all the technological marvels at our disposal. Yet Western civilization instead is engaged in a culture clash with a culture that’s stuck in the 7th century, bent on oppressing women and imposing its suffocating religious views on the rest of the globe.
Our freedoms are at risk, plain and simple. The question again is: How do we respond? Will we cower at the threats of backward, hooded radicals? Or will we, like the brave editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, press on, speak our minds and say what needs to be said?
So, how will I respond? I will go back to my drawing board and try to make sense of this ridiculous and senseless vicious assault on my friends and colleagues an ocean away.
Under constant threat of death, Charbonnier was quoted in the French newspaper LeMonde as saying, “I would rather die standing than live on my knees.”
That’s seems like a good place to start.
Rick McKee is an editorial cartoonist for the Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle.