Tragic lessons from the desks of Charlie Hebdo

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If the barbarians who slaughtered 12 people at France’s satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, last week thought they were killing free speech at the point of their automatic rifles, they were sorely, absurdly mistaken.

Nothing ignites the fire of democracy in the belly of open – too often, casually complacent – societies than the massacre of innocents.

And, make no mistake, despite their habitual, even offensive, run at the world’s religions, the editors, writers and political cartoonists who died at the hands of a cadre of Islamic fundamentalists were, by any reasonable comparison with their assailants, utterly guiltless.

The wits and wags of Charlie Hebdo used their minds and pens to poke holes in the dangerous dogmas and priggish pomposities of their targets of derision. They didn’t grab guns and blow away their ideological nemeses like so many deer caught in the headlights of fanatical blood-lust.

As the still-civilized world mourns the obscene events in Paris, it also stands firm and united in its determination to, again, enshrine the principles of a free press as a requisite condition of an unfettered and enlightened society.

Canadian editorial cartoonists – marking the passing of four of their French peers – have come forward, joining their voices with hundreds of others around the world.

As CTV reported on Thursday, “In Halifax, Michael De Adder and Bruce MacKinnon both drew poignant pieces for the murdered. De Adder’s cartoon showed a hand writing out the words, ‘freedom of speech,’ with extremists trying to stop the hand from completing the words. . .MacKinnon’s showed a tattered French flag flying at half-mast, with a pencil serving as a flagpole.”

Said Bruce: “As negative and traumatic as this is, it has the opposite effect because it proves our relevance. It shows that what we do has an effect and does matter.”

Added Mike: “I’m actually more jazzed to continue what I’m doing.”

Their colleague, Edmonton Journal cartoonist Malcolm Mayes, praised his fallen, overseas comrades for their courage in the face of numerous threats over the past several years from would-be – now confirmed – Islamic terrorists.

To CTV, he said, “They weren’t cowed, they weren’t afraid. They stood their ground and that’s what people have to do in the face of threats like this. . .I’m not going to change the way I draw or change my opinion because someone threatens me.”

Opined Terry Mosher (a.k.a. Aislin), who made his professional bones afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted on the editorial pages of the Montreal Gazette: “Satire is poking fun and questioning hopefully all of our institutions and our attitudes. Nothing is ever 100 per cent right. So the whole purpose of satire is to test your system and see if we can poke fun at these things and question them – obviously, I believe in that very strongly.”

Sadly, too many young, radicalized thugs around the world simply do not share similar values. Even more lamentable is that some of them possess the means and the opportunity to wreak havoc – on the societies that have accepted them without much compunction – at will.

We can, of course, react with force – hunting down likely perpetrators George W. Bush-style, throwing them into internment camps, subjecting them to state-sanctioned torture, and conveniently forgetting where we left the keys to their locked cages.

We can, naturally, launch drones to blow up their enclaves and, in the process, a few thousand innocent bystanders and call that “collateral damage”.

Or we could take to the generally safe streets we call home – as millions have over the past few days since the Charlie Hebdo tragedy – and declare that freedom is a universally accessible commodity; that speech is the mechanism of democracy; that live ammo is the last resort of a peaceful, productive civilization just as it is the first of an authoritarian, paranoid one.

We could take a breath and remember to get back to the hard, sometimes perillous, work of promulgating the worthy, essential notion that the free expression of ideas defines us as thinking humans, not killers or murderers or vile barbarians.

Those who died at the offices of Charlie Hebdo understood this. They weren’t martyrs. But they were heroes of democracy, and our memories of them will live longer than those we now revile of the savages who ended their lives.

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