by Dennis Reeves Cooper
This is a followup to my letter to the editor that was published last week. It was in reference to the massacre of eight employees at a small newspaper in Paris by Islamic terrorists. The newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, which specializes in satire, had published cartoons that made fun of the Prophet Muhammad. Reportedly, however, the newspaper’s editors are equal opportunity satirists, routinely ridiculing powerful people in government and business as well as political, corporate, social– and religious organizations. All religious organizations, not just Islam.
So why would a couple of Islamic nutcakes be motivated to shoot up a newspaper office just because the editors published a couple of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad? The answer is quite simple. The Muslim religion apparently prohibits any artistic depiction of the Prophet, calling such depictions sacrilegious. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. In the terrorists’ minds, the newspaper published the cartoons, so the cartoonists and the editors and the writers had to die. You can understand the simple logic of that reasoning, can’t you? They were simply revenging the Prophet.
Most of the international response to the massacre has been in support of free speech and to decry the murderous behavior of religious crazies who apparently feel that they have a moral right to kill those who dare to say or publish something that offends them. But some commentators have actually suggested that the editors of Charlie Hebdo had “crossed a line” and should have, therefore, not have been surprised when that they were attacked. And in fact, some commentators pointed out, the newspaper had even been “warned” by previous threats. So, these commentators inferred, the newspaper should not have published the cartoons.
No, no, no, no! That’s not how free speech works. The concept of protected speech is not to protect non-controversial and tasteful speech. Non-controversial and tasteful speech rarely needs protection in free societies. The real purpose of the free speech concept is to protect controversial and even offensive and tasteless speech. I believe that most Americans share my attitude concerning free speech: I may not agree with what you’re saying, but I strongly believe that you have the absolute right to say it or publish it.
During the years that I ran Key West The Newspaper, there were many critics who complained that we occasionally “crossed a line” when we exposed corruption and incompetence in city and county governments and in local and county law enforcement– and especially when we revealed a sex scandal or two. But nobody threatened to kill us– even when, back in 2006, we reprinted a couple of cartoons that made fun of the prophet Muhammad. Those cartoons had originally been published by a Danish newspaper– which had resulted in the editors receiving death threats. I re-published two of those cartoons to make a free speech statement.
But last week, the threats became real in Paris. Eight journalists were gunned down for simply exercising their right to free speech. Speech that was offensive to some maybe. But speech that was their right to publish nevertheless. Some of the commentators who suggested that Charlie Hebdo “went over the line” also pointed out that there are extremists in all religions, not just in the Muslim world. True. But there are few examples of extremists in religions other than Islam who go around killing people who write or say things that they disagree with. Comedian Bill Maher has made a career out of ridiculing Christianity as simply a fairy tale and suggesting that, if you are a true believer, you are simply stupid. As far as I know, no Christian extremist– no matter how offended he or she might be– has ever attempted to kill Maher.
I am also pleased to report that, when I published those Danish cartoons in KWTN, nobody threatened to kill me either. In fact, nobody ever even sued us for anything we published. But if you are a longtime reader, you may recall that former Police Chief Buz Dillon did have me arrested for publishing something he didn’t like. Fortunately for me, the ACLU agreed with me that it was a free speech thing and sued Dillon and the city on my behalf. Ultimately, the state law that Dillon used to arrest me was declared unconstitutional and the City of Key West bought me a new sports car and a new computer system for the newspaper. And not long after that, Dillon was fired and the voters of Key West created an independent Citizen Review Board to oversee the Key West Police Department. Free speech continues to be alive and well in Key West.
One more thing you need to know about the remaining staff of Charlie Hebdo. This week, they published the first issue of the newspaper since the massacre. A cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad is featured on page one. (How do you say cojones in French?) Ironically, the terrorists’ goal of killing Charlie Hebdo has had just the opposite effect. Before the attack, the newspaper sold about 60,000 copies on a good week. This week, five million copies were published– and they are already sold out. Over the weekend,more than a million people marched in a rally in Paris in support of free speech and Charlie Hebdo. Signs are everywhere in Paris: “Je Suis Charlie!” (I am Charlie!) The newspaper is way more famous than before. And the dumbass terrorists have been caught and shot down like dogs. I refer to them as “dumbass” because one of the reasons they got caught is that one of them left his ID in the getaway car. Duh!
Finally, I need to add a note here about hypocrisy. Muslims around the world are decrying the publication of the new issue of Charlie Hebdo with the cartoon of Muhammad on the cover, warning that it could provoke new attacks on the newspaper. Meanwhile, newspapers in Muslim countries routinely publish the vilest of cartoons depicting Jesus in particular and Jews in general. In France, while free speech has been much discussed and promoted in recent days, I am told that there is a federal law on the books that makes it a criminal offense to deny that the Holocaust ever happened. While I agree that it is beyond tasteless and stupid to deny the Holocaust, stating a stupid opinion about it should not be against the law. From a free speech standpoint, that makes about as much sense as passing a law making it a criminal offense to publish a cartoon depicting Muhammad or criticizing Jesus.
One more note, this one related to Journalism 101. Stories about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons have been published around the world over the past week or so, but many of the media have not included photos of the actual cartoons– an integral element of the story. As a former journalism teacher, let me see if I’ve got this right. They run a story about cartoons that apparently provoked a mass killing but, for some reason, don’t show the cartoons– or if they show them, they blur them. Among the explanations I’ve heard is that editors thought they might be considered offensive by some readers or viewers. Bull! They haven’t run the cartoons because management feared retaliation by Islamic terrorists– just as the management of many movie theaters opted not to run the satiric movie “The Interview” after bomb threats from, allegedly, North Korea. In the movie, a comedy, two hapless journalists find themselves involved in a fictional plot to assassinate North Korea leader Kim Jong-un. The movie has since been released online.
I do have an admission here: Back in 2006, when I made the decision to run a couple of the Danish cartoons in Key West The Newspaper, I hesitated for a moment– but I was reasonably certain that there were no serious Islamic terrorists here in Key West who might want to raid our offices.
If you want to see the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, go online to huffingtonpost.com “These are the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that the terrorists thought were worth killing over.” You might be surprised at how tame they are. But keep in mind that the perceived “crime” here is publishing any depiction of the Prophet Muhammad at all.
Dennis Reeves Cooper founded Key West The Newspaper in 1994 and was editor and publisher for 18 years before he retired in 2012.