Some events are profoundly shocking, and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris notably at the offices of Charlie Hebdo killing twelve are such events. That horrible attack was brazen and well-planned, and conducted in broad daylight, but what the attack represented was deeply sinister and dangerous: it was a denial of the foundations of liberal democracies, where individuals enjoy rights and freedoms, in favour of ignorance and slavery.
Freedom of speech and press is an important cornerstone of liberal democracies. A free press can be crude, sordid, extravagant, and pungent. It can be offensive. It can be excessive and even engage in illegal activities, as the scandals in Britain in the recent years demonstrate. I may not like certain types of newspapers and magazines or the editorial lines they take, and I disagree vehemently at times to the extent I wish they would no longer publish: but the way to achieve that is not through killing the writers and cartoonists, but argue the case against what they stand for in the public sphere, convince the public, and render the publication unprofitable thus not viable. The press is powerful, but at the same time, it reflects our society as much as or most likely more than it influences us. The free press is a mirror, showing us with warts and all.
I may be wrong, as I am no expert in the media landscapes of different countries, but I do not think there is anything comparable to Charlie Hebdo in terms of its content, presentation, and cultural importance in most other countries. The only and very inadequate comparison that I can think of immediately is satirical stand-up comedy that will challenge any perceived taboo, which certainly will not make it onto television or into print, and as such will not have the kind of cultural impact that print still does possess. It is something that would make me extremely uncomfortable and wince in horror. That is their purpose: to challenge lazy assumptions and burst the bubble of the collective cant and self-imposed taboos that we live in. It is a function that can be performed by satire or by a fool or a court jester who can say things that no one else can or dares to.
Cartoons strip mercilessly the protective layers that we all wear and can reasonably expect to maintain when photographed. Subjects of political satire in the cartoon form are stripped to the minimum to put in the starkest possible relief the fundamental issues at hand. In other words, often the cartoons are a way to maintain the recognizability of the depicted but at the same time depersonalize the depiction, and focus on the actual issue.
Religion like politics cannot be immune from criticism and satire: in places where individuals enjoy the freedom of religion to join and believe in a particular faith, worship and otherwise express religous views and perform rituals so long as such do not harm others, as well as to leave the faith, that freedom of religion cannot oppress freedom of speech and expression.
Charlie Hebdo would not be a magazine that I would pick up at a kiosk, because it does not accord with my taste, yet I believe that it should be able to publish without fear. It could be sued, it could be censured by public opinion, but that is a discourse that must take place in the public sphere. I may not be Charlie in that I do not share its editorial line or necessarily agree with what it does, but we are all Charlie in that we live and should be able to live in a free society where we are free to express our views. By their murderous acts, the terrorists attacked all of us.
Nous sommes tous Charlie