One thing that unites totalitarians, and would-be totalitarians, it seems, is a lack of a sense of humor. Hitler hated The Great Dictator. Kim Jong-un hates The Interview. And Islamist fanatics hate Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper known for making light of ISIS and others of their ilk. By contrast great democratic leaders such as Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan have been renowned for their humor.
As Reuters notes, “From publishing the Danish cartoons of Mohammad that sparked Middle East riots in 2005 to renaming an edition ‘Sharia Hebdo’ and listing Islam’s prophet as its supposed editor-in-chief, the weekly has repeatedly caricatured Muslims and their beliefs.”
Granted, many of Charlie Hebdo’s offerings were in poor taste–and not only it mockery at the expense of Islam. It has also been scathing in its denunciations of the Catholic Church. Likewise The Interview was in many ways a risible flick that intersperses stupid penis and buttocks jokes amid its mockery of North Korea.
But it is vitally important to resist the impulse–so common among “responsible” institutions, whether foreign ministries or large newspapers–at a time like this to somehow imply that the victims brought their fate upon themselves and that the best line of defense against such attacks is to practice greater self-restraint in the future. The Financial Times, for example, is a great newspaper but it is inappropriate, on today of all days, for it to be calling Charlie Hebdo “stupid” for offending (some) Muslims. That is giving the terrorists precisely what they want, indeed the very reason they carry out such attacks is to deter others from similar mockery in the future.
The right to offend is the very essence of free speech–and as long as a publication doesn’t incite violence (which neither Charlie Hebdo nor The Interview did) its right to say whatever it likes must be defended to the last inch. That is, after all, the very bedrock of freedom upon which Western democracies rest–and the very opposite of the kind of totalitarian state that Islamists have created in Iran and a large chunk of Syria/Iraq.
At a time like this there is not much more to say than “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie)–the lone message carried today on Charlie Hebdo‘s website. We must all stand with the satirists, however tasteless, lest we find “serious” political commentary becomes the next target of the haters and killers.