Paris slaughter can’t silence free expression: Our view

Memorial protest in Paris on Wednesday night.

Cartoonists are not ordinarily people you’d think of as threatening. Their most dangerous weapon is rapier wit, artistically aimed to provoke thought. But for the thin-skinned, the intolerant and the arrogant, mockery stings more than an acid bath.

So on Wednesday, in an act of primitive brutality, Islamist radicals angered by the work of four cartoonists simply murdered them, along with other journalists and bystanders at the satirical Paris weekly Charlie Hebdo.

The satirists might be unlikely heroes, but they are heroes nevertheless — martyrs to that most fundamental of Western values, the right to free expression, which they chose to exercise despite threats and a firebombing just three years ago that might have muted others.

Their form of speech was not the easiest to defend. Like other satirical publications, Charlie Hebdo aims to be offensive, and it succeeds. The newspaper regularly mocks politicians and religious leaders of all types, including Catholics and Jews. Muslim radicals have been a recurring target.

A decade ago, Charlie republished a collection of Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed that had set off worldwide riots. Muslims sued for blasphemy and lost.

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In 2011, a cover renamed the magazine Charia Hebdo, a play on sharia, or Islamic law, and said the issue was edited by Mohammed. The firebombing followed.

Gallery: The daring covers of Charlie Hebdo.

Undeterred, Charlie Hebdo set off an uproar again in 2012. After a U.S.-Produced anti-Islam film ignited a fresh round of rioting, the weekly rejected government pleas not to fan the flames and published a cartoon depicting Mohammed naked. Other cartoons, articles and editorials ridiculing Islamic extremism appeared along the way, drawing threats, a cyberattack and ultimately Wednesday’s massacre.

Looking at that history, one might be tempted to say the tabloid acted like a man who pokes a bear with a stick; it’s no surprise that the bear clawed back. But that would miss the point. So, too, would it be a mistake to focus on the crudeness of the newspaper’s humor or its apparent indifference to the consequences of its actions.

Instead, the issue is free speech, which inevitably involves tolerance of offensive speech. The unacceptable alternative is to have speech judged by government censors.

Muslim extremists reject this concept of free expression. They say that nothing is more important to Islam than revering its founder and protecting him from insults, and that Western societies must bend to Allah’s dictates. You can read their reasoning in the opposing view from a radical London cleric.

He and his brethren argue that they seek only tolerance and respect, which all religions deserve, but they demand fealty that is fundamentally incompatible with Western concepts of freedom. Governments have no business enforcing their beliefs, or those of anyone else.

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That’s a big part of what Charlie Hebdo’s satirists were trying to say. The idea that they should die for saying it is an outrage that should be repudiated by every civilized person, Muslim or not.

USA TODAY’s editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.

To read more editorials, go to the Opinion front page or sign up for the daily Opinion e-mail newsletter.

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