So, the brothers who murdered 12 people in Paris said they wanted to die as “martyrs.”
They didn’t. The real martyrs were the 12 people killed in the attack on the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo.
The editors, writers, cartoonists and police officers who fell died in service to and in defense of a free society, one that allows people to believe and say what they wish. The idea that human beings should be free is a fragile but surprisingly resilient concept, one that endures despite constant threats and a seemingly endless string of atrocities aimed at trying to kill both the idea of liberty and the people who adhere to it.
The brothers and their accomplices said they slaughtered innocent people because they wanted to honor their god. They didn’t bring honor to anything.
What they really tried to do was shackle thought. They were upset that Charlie Hebdo poked fun at Islam.
The fact that Charlie Hebdo also made sport of Christianity, of Judaism and of other faiths escaped them. Or maybe they just didn’t care. Like so many zealots from so many faith traditions, the brothers and their accomplices believed their creator was so massively insecure and devoid of a sense of humor that god would demand blood as a compensation for jibes.
They believed, somehow, that murder was a proportionate response to jokes.
It is so easy for us to forget at times how revolutionary free expression and free thought were and are –and how essential they are to liberating the human spirit. That extends to parody and satire. Powerful figures – politicians, religious leaders, business tycoons – can withstand condemnation and outright opposition much more easily than they can ridicule. It’s hard to recover once one has become a laughing stock.
The ability to make fun of those who would presume to be our lords and masters goes a long way toward leveling the playing field – and, in its way, to reminding all of us that, however elevated our stations may be, we’re all brothers and sisters under the skin.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to preserve the right to level that playing field. There’s a technical term for the person who says he or she enjoys being made fun of.
That technical term is “liar.”
And that’s why those with the means to oppress others try to shut down those who mock them.
Sometimes the powerful people on the receiving end of humor use the power of government to try to censor what’s being said.
And sometimes, tragically, they use automatic weapons to gun down defenseless people whose only offense was speaking their minds.
But it’s because free speech and free thought can be painful that it is essential they be protected.
The argument in favor of free expression isn’t that it’s painless. No one ever promised that it would be efficient. And certainly no one could or should claim that it’s always going to be safe.
The case for human liberty isn’t utilitarian. It’s moral.
The argument for freedom is that it allows people to be free – and people deserve to be free.
A couple of centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson, an American founder who loved France, offered the best tribute to the people who fell this past week in that country:
“I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Amen, Tom. Amen.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.