Drawing the Line

Terrorists may have succeeded in gunning down journalists—several of them cartoonists—working for French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, but if one of their goals was to silence criticism, it was a spectacular failure.

Jan. 7 will go down as one of the deadliest days in history for journalists, a point Brian Stelter of CNN made Thursday, in a stretch of dangerous years for the profession.  But it should also be remembered for the reaction of the Charlie Hebdo staff's comrades in arms (and hands and pens and pads).

It may not seem like it amidst the videos of bodies coming out on stretchers, but the pen is still mightier than the sword (or automatic weapon), a point cartoonists made again and again in tribute to the slain cartoonists and defiance of the attackers.

The Daily Mail has a representative sample of what at press time was a growing body of often poignant work, including my favorite, "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," showing a pencil whole, then broken in half, then both pieces sharpened so there are now two pencils ready for action. Perfect.

I also liked The Onion's take on the tragedy.

"According to totally and utterly depressing early reports, given the tragic deaths of 12 people, it is impossible to say with absolute certainty that this 500-word article will not make those involved in its writing—and potentially even those not involved—the targets of brutal and unconscionable violence," the paper said, tongue in tear-stained cheek.

Michael Cavna in TheWashington Post made a good point about satirists faced with drawing the line, cartoonists literally so, when it comes to potentially blasphemous satire. Each has to make his or her own decision about how far to go to stand up for their commentary.

But that decision should not have to be made at the point of a gun.

And the rest of us have to stand up for that commentary as well, even more so for speech we find distasteful, which is the hardest to defend and thus the most in need of defending. That doesn't mean we have to agree with it, or like it. We can even hate it. But freedom of expression means the freedom to challenge orthodoxies, and to be both right and wrong, tasteful and tasteless, reverent and, yes, blasphemous. 

Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier once said he would rather "die standing up than live on his knees." Journalists around the world have faced a similar choice when threatened, and some, like Hebdo, have paid a heavy price for refusing to back down.