But it didn’t happen. Support and solidarity quickly turned to questioning the motives of the attacked cartoonists. As asked during the Danish cartoon controversy in 2006, had the cartoonists crossed a line? Should certain images be off-limits because they are offensive to religious or cultural beliefs? Influential writers and cartoonists claimed that Charlie Hebdo only created Islamophobic cartoons (which was proved untrue) and punched downward on the disenfranchised, thus creating an atmosphere where a violent response could be explained or understood. Never mind there are plenty of disenfranchised people in the world who don’t resort to violence because of being on the receiving end of bigotry, sexism, or economic inequality.
So attacks continued on cartoonists and bloggers who dare to criticize governments, challenge institutions and traditional thinking. It seems like the quantified support for Charlie Hebdo has only allowed for repressive governments and humorless dictators to establish their own list of offensive images, mainly any criticism which ridicules them and threatens their power. In Iran, artist and activist Atena Farghadani drew a cartoon of members of Parliament as barnyard animals which landed her in jail and sexually abused with a virginity test. Malaysian cartoonist Zunar had his offices raided, cartoon books confiscated, and is facing a possible 43 year jail sentence for sedition. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the thin-skinned humorless president of Turkey not only arrested two cartoonists for drawing him in an unflattering light, he threw a teenager in jail for insulting him in a speech. Two Chinese cartoonists detained, another Iranian cartoonist jailed, the list goes on.
The only protection these brave cartoonists have is for the world to speak loudly for their right to freely express themselves. As First Amendment attorney Robert Corn Revere asked yesterday during a panel discussion about Charlie Hebdo at the Newseum, “Do you protect the right to offend? Or do you protect the right not to be offended?”
But before you start the mental gymnastics and open the door to what is acceptable and what isn’t, think what the repercussions will be. Banning offensive images either officially or through intimidation will only end up allowing intolerant individuals and institutions to change drawing a red line for cartoonists into drawing an enclosure for them.
(Originally published January 16, 2015)