Newspapers, including small community newspapers, have a particular duty to observe the deaths of journalists around the world as they do their jobs. The stories that 40, 50, and 60 journalists a year are killed while working on may seem remote, and the publications they work for may seem obscure, but the safety of journalists everywhere to do their work is a universally acknowledged cornerstone of fair and just societies. We make a social contract to protect a free press in order to help preserve our liberty, and we are all weakened when this privilege is assaulted.
So there is an acute anguish attached to watching and reading accounts of the slaughter in France this past week, leaving 17 people dead, beginning with the executions of four satirical cartoonists at the offices of the Paris-based magazine Charlie Hebdo and ending, for now, in a crowded kosher market in a Jewish section of the city.
Charlie Hebdo is a predictable target of outrage, and in fact was the site of a firebomb attack in 2011. Its ’60s and ’70s-era satire was intertwined with the social upheaval of postcolonial, post-World War II France. Defiance of authority and humor at the expense of the powerful were essential if destabilizing steps in French modernization.
Charlie Hebdo is generally beloved, but is also showing its age. Increasingly controversial for drawings and prose meant to provoke and ridicule just about anyone in its sights (and not always the powerful and the pompous) at any cost, its satire increasingly tests the limits to which freedom of expression should be taken. Not all of us would make the same choices that Charlie has made.
But terrorists don’t get to define acceptable speech, and the machine-gun execution of satirical cartoonists, armed only with wit and pen, provides stark testimony to the ascending dissolution of all restraint separating social and religious frustration and anger from slaughter-as-remedy. We need, more than ever, an unencumbered press of all sensibilities, to discover, to illuminate, and most of all to get the story out. We are not “all Charlie,” but we need to all be journalists.
Peter Oberfest is the publisher of The Martha’s Vineyard Times.