In 20-some-odd (including some really odd) years of newspapering, I ran into a few situations where people were not happy with what I wrote.
Sometimes they called me to politely express their disagreement. Sometimes they complained to my superiors. A few lambasted me in public. No one ever tried to shoot me, however. No one ever shot up the entire office.
No one at any office in which I worked ever raised the possibility of a terrorist attack over something published in the paper.
Beyond the possibility of having your time taken up by an occasional phone call or anonymous obnoxious comments from Internet trolls, we felt pretty safe.
The attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo shocked many throughout the world. This wasn’t a military garrison. It wasn’t a government office where Middle Eastern policy was decided.
Yes, Charlie Hebdo published cartoons that some Muslims – and others – might find offensive. Some of the items might be what we in the South would call “tacky.”
That’s fine. If it bothers you, write a letter to the editor. Declare – yet again – that you’re cancelling your subscription. You don’t need to shoot up the place.
It’s a humor magazine, for crying out loud.
What would people, who declare themselves eager to die for their cause, have to fear over a few jokes? The answer is that they have a great deal to fear.
More than a century ago, Mark Twain summed up the threat posed by Charlie Hebdo.
“Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution – those can lift a colossal humbug – push it a little – weaken it a little, century by century, but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”
Before the first shot was fired at Lexington or Concord, newspapers in the American colonies published cartoons ridiculing the British government. One that I recall from the history books showed King George III being thrown from a horse symbolizing America.
Not everyone might agree with the position of the cartoonist or writer. Some won’t get the joke.
The joke, however, holds up those who attempt to intimidate to the light of public consideration. Mao said that power comes from the barrel of a gun.
Public opinion can be an even more powerful force. Napoleon said that “four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than 1,000 bayonets.”
Humor can rip down the curtain drawn by fear and threats, exposing those behind it to the glare of reality.
Some people will laugh. Others might disagree. They all will talk about it. They will think about the situation. They will not blindly accept what they’re told by those in power.
Beneath the gunfire, explosions and screamed threats calling for unquestioning, absolute obedience is a noise. Something is laughing. It’s the human spirit.
The forces of intolerance might be willing to face bullets, bombers and drones. They also face another, more powerful attack – the assault of laughter.