My great friend, Paul Szep is a 2 time Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist with the syndicate Creators.com. Through the years, he would often discuss freedom of the press issues with colleagues, friends and fans. “You are as free as your publisher allows you to be,” he would answer when someone asked if he could draw whatever he wanted for his newspaper, which was at the time, THE BOSTON GLOBE. I remember there were days when he would submit subjects that never did see the light of day. Mostly cartoons about the Catholic Church if memory serves. That is, until it became clear that there were pedophile priests who were criminals and who deserved to be confronted, caught and removed from the path of young children.
I couldn’t help but think of him when this Paris story broke at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Usually it is the families of police officers who have to worry if their loved ones will make it home each night. Not the families of political cartoonists, 4 of whom were murdered that day.
“The Charlie Hebdo tragedy is beyond words,” said Szep when I wrote him. “It does transcend religion. These thugs are just like any extremists. They are just killers that in this case hide under the guise of the Koran. There is no danger of that kind of thing happening right now in this country. Newspapers are so preoccupied with loss of circulation, hard hitting cartoons are a thing of the past. I just have to appreciate what I had and when I had it,” said Szep.
Newspapers, like individuals have to have courage to criticize, whether it be about a politician, an institution or God. You risk lawsuits, ridicule and anger. It’s hard enough to tell friend, for instance, that her husband is cheating on her never mind attempting to reveal the truth about the wrong doing of a company or powerful person.
Bravery is not just found on the battlefield. And neither are the dead.
I remember what a former radio co-host of mine once said about freedom of expression. “We don’t need laws to protect popular speech. We need them to protect unpopular speech.” We apparently need kevlar vests as well as laws these days.
There are disagreements about what Muslim extremists believe. On the one hand Juan Cole who is the author of a religious website says this about the sacred book of Islam.
“Terrorism is above all murder. Murder is strictly forbidden in the Qur’an. Qur’an 6:151 says, “and do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct.” But another website, thereligionofpeace.com, expresses a different view. “The Quran contains at least 109 verses that call Muslims to war with nonbelievers for the sake of Islamic rule. Some are quite graphic, with commands to chop off heads and fingers and kill infidels wherever they may be hiding. Muslims who do not join the fight are called ‘hypocrites’ and warned that Allah will send them to Hell if they do not join the slaughter.”
I don’t even understand what these terrorists want. To shut us up and then rid the world of everybody but them? It is a thought too awful to even consider and certainly worth fighting against. So cartoonists must keep drawing. Reporters reporting. Soldiers fighting. We will re-build towers when they fall and keep telling the truth even when we’re afraid.