Courage is the only answer to fanaticism

Cartoonist David Pope posted this cartoon on Twitter, saying “Can't sleep tonight, thoughts with my French cartooning colleagues, their families and loved ones. #CharlieHebdo.” See other cartoons at http://on.wsj.com/1xSeO4l.

The terror attack on a newspaper in Paris is a vicious punch in the gut for journalists and human beings everywhere. It is a clarion call to all people on behalf of fundamental principles of freedom of expression.

To place these murders in context, it’s worth thinking of the victimized satirical publication as a sort of French equivalent of America’s The Daily Show or The Onion newspaper. They all are treasured cultural institutions better known for pointed humor than for hard news. Imagine a deadly assault on The Daily Show or Fox News. The U.S. would be staggered by such an affront to liberty; even those skewered by their wit would deeply mourn the passing of such gadflies.

A vast majority of Muslims will feel a similar sense of outrage and loss after the Paris attack, in addition to regretting the added stigmatization they will be subjected to on account of this grotesque assault. One of the best ways that Western Civilization has to confront such a horrible crime is to firmly resist any temptation to tar all Islam with the same brush.

The words and attitudes of religious leaders do matter. Mainstream Muslim clerics must denounce violence done in false adherence to Allah. When it comes to ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Boko Haram in Nigeria or the thugs in Paris, real leadership consists of honoring the real moral framework of humanity. All good people must unite in opposition to evil.

At the same time, Western governments and citizens have to recognize that our historical record is far from spotless. France has a particularly messy record when it comes to its former African colonies. None of this justifies killing innocent people in Paris.

There will always be fanatics whose deepest fear is ridicule. Every newspaper editor has experienced the phenomenon of an editorial cartoon generating an eruption of anger, when the very same ideas conveyed in an editorial might barely cause a ripple. Cartoons like those drawn by some of the artists targeted this week have a unique ability to skewer the pretensions and illusions of self-important individuals. This is an ability worth preserving and nurturing at any cost.

The very last thing the Paris murder victims would want is for free expression to be dampened or self-censored on account of blood-thirsty stooges bearing high-powered weapons.

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