Joe Randazzo, who steered satirical newspaper The Onion through many controversial landmines during his five-year tenure at the company, has penned a perfect response to the devastating news that a French paper, Charlie Hebdo, was the target of a depraved terrorist attack at its offices leaving many staff members dead. While the satirical newspaper never shied away from ridiculing the brutality of radical Islam and would not allow threats of violence to detract from the paper’s message of tolerance, it’s difficult to fathom that such a devastating attack could befall an organization committed to making people laugh.
Perhaps no one knows the importance of satire better than others doing it, and Randazzo’s piece is a moving testament to the power of the pen over the cowardice of not just guns, but all forms of tyranny.
Many will probably look at the attacks on the cartoonists, writers, and satirists at Charlie Hebdo as done over something trivial. They offended radical Muslims by poking fun at the prophet Muhammad and other religious leaders and these extremists reacted in violence. But what Randazzo points out is that attacks like this are much more than that.
“They were cartoonists and editors and humorists. People whose job in life was to point at hypocrisy and laugh at it; to ridicule hate; to make us all try to see our own failings as humans. And they were killed for it.
For those who would trivialize the idea, this was what an actual attack on freedom looks like.”
Which brings Randazzo to his most profound message; that a democratic society committed to the ideals of liberty must, by all means necessary, allow people to speak truth to power and the best way to do that is through laughter.
“Satire must always accompany any free society. It is an absolute necessity. Even in the most repressive medieval kingdoms, they understood the need for the court jester, the one soul allowed to tell the truth through laughter. It is, in many ways, the most powerful form of free speech because it is aimed at those in power, or those whose ideas would spread hate. It is the canary in the coalmine, a cultural thermometer, and it always has to push, push, push the boundaries of society to see how much it’s grown.”
Others who have dared criticize “those in power, or those whose ideas would spread hate” have also taken today to speak out against the attack.
Salman Rushdie, who had a fatwa placed on him after he wrote a book that some Muslims felt mocked their faith, didn’t hold back:
“Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. ‘Respect for religion’ has become a code phrase meaning ‘fear of religion.’ Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.”
A fellow cartoonist who says he knew some of the Charlie staff, put his feelings in a cartoon:
— David Pope (@davpope) January 7, 2015
It’s clear that the staff at Charlie Hebdo knew their job was vitally important. It wasn’t just that they ridiculed from afar, they were acutely aware that what they were doing put them in the crosshairs of some of the most violent people on Earth and they published anyway. In fact, a few years ago after they published a special edition of their paper devoted solely to tackling radical Islam, their offices were firebombed. They got an guard stationed in front of their office (sadly, one of which was killed in Wednesday’s attack), and went back to work without hesitation.
So rather than kill satire, the terrorists have only reminded the world of one thing: The pen may or may not be mightier than the sword, but the ones wielding them are certainly braver.