It was, essentially, an execution. Twelve people slaughtered at the office of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in response to the paper’s series of gleeful, pointed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
Gerard Biard, the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, was in London at the time of the attack, and his response in the aftermath of the massacre captured much of the world’s shock. “I don’t understand,” he said, “how people can attack a newspaper with heavy weapons. A newspaper is not a weapon of war.”
The history of satirical cartoons suggests otherwise. A cartoon is designed to convey its message “quickly and ungently,” an urgent dispatch meant to swiftly strike a nerve. Political cartoons, wielded like tire irons by satirical artists, have been always been “instruments of tremendous editorial power,” able to “match any other media for invective,” a vehicle for “disseminating highly emotional attitudes.”
“If you are doing your job properly, you are being malicious every day,” Paul Szep, a cartoonist for the Boston Globe, has said.
This is tremendous, potent power—a direct threat to its targets. Throughout the history of the political cartoon, targets have struck back.
In his article “Reconsidering the Decline of the Editorial Cartoon,” author Ilan Danjoux presents this incomplete list of attempts to silence artists by arrest, torture and execution:
• The torture of man artist named Pauson, for his attack on Greek leadership, was described by both Aristotle and Aristophanes.
• Honore Daumier, a French artist, was imprisoned for his lampooning of King Louis Philippe and his court.
• English Cartoonist David Low was placed on the Gestapo’s extermination list.
• Naji Ali was assassinated in 1987 for his criticism of Arab and Palestinian leaders.
• In 1998, Kurdish cartoonist Dogan Guzal criticized his government as weak, and was subsequently sentenced to 16 months in high-security prison.
• Charlie Hebdo has also been targeted before. In 2011 after the publication of an issue that billed the Prophet Muhammad as a “guest editor,” their offices were gutted by a firebomb.
A newspaper is undeniably a weapon of war, and its power can be measured against the efforts taken to disarm them. In the wake of the attack, almost 2 million people, which included more than 40 world leaders, gathered in the streets of Paris to remember the victims in what has been called “the largest public rally in France since World War II.”