I first heard about the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists early in the morning while juggling my two kids at breakfast. My wife and I spoke in hushed tones and spelled out words in front of the kids. I want to keep this sort of awfulness from them as long as possible. Our oldest knows I’m a cartoonist, and suddenly, cartoonists getting killed was the top story on every news outlet.
While I have the luxury of living and working in the United States, where thankfully free speech is revered, the attacks in Paris definitely put the “what if?” in the back of my head.
No time for that, I had to contact my political cartoonist friends around the country to see if they had any news or knew any of the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo. It didn’t take long to hear stories of palling around with these guys or having beers with them, and now they were dead, targeted by terrorists for their cartoons.
Imagine your grandfather or an older uncle who can draw and make people laugh. They’re fun at parties and have an interesting, weird job. That describes many of the cartoonists I know, and seems to apply to the cartoonists killed at Charlie Hebdo. (Three of the cartoonists who were killed were over 70 years old.)
I don’t want to minimize the senseless killing of the other non-cartoonists, but it was the cartoonists who led the crazed gunmen to attack the Charlie Hebdo offices that day. They did it because of the cartoons.
So, should we take a closer look at the content and offensive nature of some of those cartoons? Should we dig deeper into the cultural differences that caused people to react so violently? Should we investigate whether these cartoons crossed a line that shouldn’t be crossed?
No. You do not kill people because your feelings were hurt. Period.
More than feelings being hurt, were these cartoons “blasphemy?” Perhaps, depending on who you ask. Sure, the Koran discourages making images of divine figures, but this is in the context of preventing idol worship. Did these terrorists really worry people would worship the cartoon images in Charlie Hebdo? After all, that’s why the Koran mentions the dangers of making images.
Of course, their worry is probably that Muhammad is being disrespected or mocked, but who gets to decide what is in good fun and what is cruel, blasphemous mocking? The guy with the AK-47, apparently.
Even if cartoons or other images depict Muhammad, the Koran does not call for punishing the creators of these images with death—that is the guy with the AK-47’s interpretation of Islam’s most holy text.
You see the dangerous rabbit hole we go down when we try to critique cartoons based on the interpretations of madmen, for that is what these terrorists really are. We shouldn’t second-guess cartoons based on a violent extremist’s interpretation of a 1,400-year-old holy book. That would be like altering federal legislation in the United States lest it offend the guy who thinks he’s Jesus and wants to poison John Boehner.
Yes, if there was no racism in France, peace in the Middle East and happy well-adjusted people everywhere, the Paris attacks may not have happened. But rather than avenging years of colonialism in the Middle East, fighting discrimination in France and defending the Prophet Muhammad, methinks these killers wanted to be bigger than they really were and do it the easy way. What’s easier than shooting up a bunch of high-profile old cartoonists?
Since editing cartoons and limiting speech based on the unintelligible demands of the confused and violent mind of an Islamic extremist is so ridiculous, what about the vast majority of Muslims who are moderate, some of who may be offended by cartoons?
Let them be offended.
Sorry, but many cartoons are intended to offend. While I would not create work like the Danish Muhammad cartoons or those appearing in Charlie Hebdo (my cartoons depicting Muhammad are a little more, um, subtle), I firmly stand by their right to create those cartoons, as ham-fisted and goofy as they are. Strangely enough, I think one of the best responses to the Danish Muhammad cartoons came from the Iranian newspaper Hamshahri, which launched their “International Holocaust Cartoon Competition” in 2006. Yes, the cartoon competition was all about Holocaust denial, and the cartoons were anti-Semitic and vile. But I’ll take a war of ideas and cartoons anytime over actual violence. Let’s fight speech with more speech!
One thing most people don’t know is that attacks on cartoonists happen all the time. I’ve become involved with Cartoonists Rights Network International, a group that shines a light on cartoonists around the world who have been attacked, imprisoned or killed. I have become friends with many cartoonists who have had to hide out from thugs, been jailed or beaten—inspiring men and women who continue to draw cartoons under threat of lawsuits, physical attacks or death.
My hope is that the power of cartoons—and conversely the attacks on powerful cartoons—receive more attention after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Even though it may not always seem like it, the pen (or pencil, or brush, or computer) really is mightier than the sword. Five million copies of Charlie Hebdo and inspired cartoonists around the world—now we know who gets the last laugh.
Mark Fiore is a flash-animation editorial cartoonist working in San Francisco. His website hosts voicemails from irate readers threatening him on a regular basis. He is the recipient of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkFiore.