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Je Suis Charlie: an Op-Ed by Robert Russell

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In the wake of the violent murder of 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo offices on the seventh of this month, the whole Western world has responded with a sense of indignation and rage over the act. However it would be good for us to take measure of a little bit of history.

During the roughly 400 years of the Catholic Inquisition, the Catholic church along with other powerful institutions burned people at the stake, hanged them, drowned them and tortured them to death in ways that make ISIS and Al Qaeda look like the dessert course at a Sunday picnic. I recognize that the only useful result of this most painful and difficult part of the history of the West was the slow and inevitable development of a collective intellectual instinct: that human beings cannot be limited in the exercise of their free imaginations. Perhaps we are now watching the world of Islam come painfully — and hopefully inevitably — to the same conclusion.

In any society and in any period in history, the survival of the individual, the nuclear family and the extended family depends on our continual reassessment and reevaluation of the environment around us. How else can we make decisions about which crops to plant, which seas to sail, which neighbors to make friends with, and which threats to build defenses around? Our free speech is the natural result of our ability to think.

Critical thinking and access to information are the core survival skills of our specie. Even the leaders of ISIS and Al Qaeda will be surprised in a few years when elements within their own ranks begin to speak with stronger voices about new ideas and new environments. It will be interesting to watch how they deal with the demand for new and accurate information and the critical thinking that that information will produce.

There have been many calls from many quarters for journalism to respect the religious feelings of Muslims since the publication of the famous 12 Danish cartoons in the Jylland-Posten magazine in 2006. Even prior to this, there has been a tendency in the major multilateral organizations to compromise free speech in the face of attacks from Islamic fundamentalists. Unfortunately, those same institutions don’t recall that it was policies of appeasement in the face of fear and threats that allowed the National Socialist movement (the Nazi Party) to close down free speech in Germany prior to World War II.

We have always promised that these lessons wouldn’t be forgotten. In my opinion any individual, institution or even government that seeks to back away from confronting fearsome threats to free speech invite further encroachments on every individual’s free speech rights. As Benjamin Franklin is quoted as saying, “those who would give up their freedoms in order to secure their safety will enjoy neither.” Unfortunately, when journalists are being murdered for the exercise of their free speech any subsequent appeal for respect can only be made in the context of fear.

The staff of the Charlie Hebdo magazine, which has a long history of irreverence and holding no religions or secular philosophies beyond its satirical attention, had received several threats in the past. Their staff stood firm and continued to lead in the world of free speech with the satiric tip of a sharp pen. At Cartoonists Rights Network International our entire family of cartoonists from around the world send our deepest sympathies to the families ofall those who were killed. Their cartoons and words float in and out of our consciousness involuntarily, constantly and always making us smile and think. Their images constantly remind us about what the world has lost.

Je suis Charlie.


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