I’ve started and stopped this column about half a dozen times so far. I doubt I’m alone. Some things, some events are just hard to wrap your mind around.
And when it comes to the murders at Charlie Hebdo, that may just be an understatement.
Understand, I’m used to people who don’t get freedom of the press. Especially this week. This week seemed to abound with folks who flunked Civics 101, reaching its peak in County Councilman Kirby Delauter of Maryland, who became a figure of national ridicule for telling a reporter to never publish his name without his permission or he’d sue. In response, the paper’s next editorial not only used his name in virtually every sentence, it used the first letter of each paragraph to spell out K-I-R-B-Y D-E-L-A-U-T-E-R.
It seemed like a perfect time to smile, laugh and remember a few basic truths. To get silly in a good cause.
Then the news out of Paris came. And it stopped being funny anymore.
I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before the attacks. I know the type, though. Satire always carries an edge, ready to skewer the sacrosanct and roast the untouchable, whether with the neatness of a rapier thrust or the messy vigor of a chainsaw.
It’s meant to shock people, often to make them step back and think. And it invariably makes enemies. Among reporters, there’s a saying that if you never offend anyone, you’re not in journalism, you’re in public relations. That goes double in satire, where targets are mocked deliberately and openly in a day’s work.
This time, the laughs were answered with blood.
For anyone who creates, this is the fundamental fear. And it’s one that can be fatal in more senses than just the obvious.
When ideas carry punishment, something important dies. When saying the wrong thing can get you fired, arrested, or even killed, the fences start to go up. The bravest fight on, perhaps, but most simply keep their heads down and watch their step. And self-censorship is the most insidious kind of all.
Kill one artist and a hundred more quietly die with her.
I’m aware that calling Charlie an “artist” may be a bit much for some, like putting Mad Magazine in the ring with Pablo Picasso. But freedom of expression and the press doesn’t just protect the elegant. It guards the crude, the irreverent, even the outright repulsive. The problem with saying “No, not him,” is that everyone has a “not him”; protecting those is the surest way to ensure it doesn’t become a “No, not you” someday.
All of which can sound awfully abstract when gunfire starts to ring in the streets. But it matters. Now, more than ever.
Now, a world has to show that fear will not win.
Not by declaring wars, or announcing new laws, or the dozens of things that societies often reach for in the wake of a murderous attack. But by continuing to speak. To laugh. To shout. To risk offense. To show that our voices will not be silenced, that our ideas will not be locked in a drawer and forgotten.
In a way, it’s Kirby Delauter all over again. How do you respond to a demand for silence? Speak even louder.
Delauter, of course, is still a civilized man. He apologized and withdrew his words. I doubt we’ll get the same courtesy from the Charlie shooters or those like them. But that doesn’t matter. The tactics remain the same. Hold the line. Stand the ground. And never let the walls rise.
This is about all of us, polite or obnoxious, French or American, left or right or center. This is about an idea, even a dream.
And it does not die here.