Steve Paul

No published offense justifies the murderous terrorist attack on French satirists

Flowers lay outside Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris on Wednesday, one week after the attack on the newspaper.
Flowers lay outside Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris on Wednesday, one week after the attack on the newspaper. The Associated Press

Charlie Hebdo didn’t skip a beat. The French satirical magazine, reeling from the slaughter of its editor and other staff members, appeared on schedule Wednesday in Paris bigger than ever and with all pens blazing.

There on its cover was an image as provocative as the publication had ever been in its raucous, often perverse history: A cartoon portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed shedding a tear and holding a sign proclaiming “Je Suis Charlie” under a headline that translates to “All Is Forgiven.” One may dwell on the highly charged ambiguity of the drawing and the line: Who is forgiving whom?

That publishing gesture is called fearless, even as it aptly reflects the character expressed by the weekly’s frequent subtitle: “Journal Irresponsable.”

Many Muslims, of course, take great offense at published images of Muhammad and other perceived insults and mockeries aimed at their faith. And many Christians and Jews alike are regularly offended by Charlie Hebdo’s irreverence, anti-establishmentism and vehemently secular approach to humor and life in that complicated French culture of “liberté, egalité, fraternité.”

The operative word is “complicated.” And that goes for all of us.

Like most journalists, I was saddened, shaken and disturbed by the orchestrated attack on Charlie Hebdo by Islamic terrorists who claimed to be avenging the prophet. And like most others, I’ve exercised many of my remaining brain cells while deliberating on the real meaning and consequences of “free expression” and the proverbial (if not the actual) “rights of man.”

But one principle should not be so complicated: Nothing — no blasphemy, no printed cartoon or outrageous opinion — justifies the murderous barbarism inflicted by two misguided brothers, Cherif and Said Kouachi, on a dozen Parisians, including a Muslim police officer, at Charlie Hebdo’s offices.

As one Muslim in Paris told the Daily Beast: “The Kouachis insulted Islam....They had no right to do what they did. It is against our religion. People need to understand that.” Then again, some of his fellow citizens in Muslim-dominated neighborhoods of Paris were professing the idiocy that the Charlie Hebdo killings were the result of a Jewish conspiracy. The lunatic fringers, like those who blame “the Jews” for the air attacks of 9/11, can be found everywhere.

The civilized world has long had to come to grips with the evidence that fanatics of virtually all religions can be ignited to kill those they oppose. Even in this country, of course. But the medieval terrors unleashed by the Islamic State in the Middle East, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Taliban in Afghanistan and the bloody splinter cells of al-Qaida represent perhaps the worst nightmares of those who cherish the democratic ideal.

It’s too simplistic to suggest, as one opinion goes, that Charlie Hebdo brought on its own fate. Again, murderous revenge is no equivalent to the expression of an idea, even an insulting one.

The writer Salman Rushdie lived in hiding for years after an Iranian ayatollah let loose a witch hunt 25 years ago because of his novel “The Satanic Verses” dared to question Islamic thought. Rushdie remains, along with a handful of others, on a “most-wanted” list in a magazine published by the al-Qaida affiliate claiming responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo slayings. Among their targets is a young Seattle artist, Molly Norris, who announced in 2010 an “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day.” Soon thereafter she went “ghost,” apparently living under a new identity, according to a rundown of these purported miscreants by New York magazine.

News outlets have undergone torturous debates about whether to publish certain images from Charlie Hebdo. To put the news and the debate in context it seems essential — to a point. Charlie Hebdo’s imagery is often crude and pornographic. Some people will argue the very same thing about this week’s cover, reproduced here. But we invite readers to express your opinions in our accompanying poll.

To reach Steve Paul, editorial page editor, call 816-234-4762 or send email to Twitter: @sbpaul.