This is true: the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were courageous journalists whose daring to poke fun at Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders was a radical expression of free speech.
This is true: The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were a bunch of careless juvenile provocateurs whose offensive work was at least partially responsible for bringing about their own deaths.
This is true: the vast majority of Muslims live peacefully in Western societies and share the larger culture's values of multiculturalism and democracy.
This is true: Islam impels certain believers to acts of brutality in the name of protecting the sacredness of their religious leaders and documents.
Like most people, I was shocked at the attack against the satirists at Charlie Hebdo. That's even when I find a lot of their work to be childish, pointless mockery, rather than incisive critical commentary. But the idea that any person with non-mainstream ideas could be targeted simply for having such ideas hit pretty close for me. I am a writer, and some of my opinions fall outside the normal channels of my religious faith. Not that I am afraid of being shot by masked terrorists. But the idea that our world still offers the opportunity to violently suppress writers and thinkers gives me the chills.
The irony of the Charlie Hebdo massacre is that the periodical was not all that popular in France. To be able to mobilize up to 2 million people for a march in support of their rights is extraordinary when their readership was only about 50,000. But the marchers are right. In a secular society that values free expression, gunning down any writer is tantamount to holding a gun to every writer's head. Expect to see significant self-censorship in the wake of Charlie Hebdo. Maybe not immediately, since everyone wants to be seen holding the bloody flag. But when the funerals are complete, the placards recycled and the speeches folder and tucked away, many writers may wonder whether it is worth putting their lives and families at risk just to beard the latest lion.
As I read the many attacks on religion in the hot periodicals, I have to admire the Charlie Hebdo writers. They were provocative and offensive in a place where violence was a proven choice of their enemies. After all, Charlie's offices had been burned two years ago after the magazine printed offensive cartoons about the Prophet Mohamed. American contributors to Salon and other magazines, which gleefully and repeatedly proclaim the idiocy of religion, face no such threats. Judging from the yawping vitriol in their comments sections, these writers enjoy notoriety and a large measure of public support from those who have no time for priests, dogmas and spiritual obligations. But I wonder how brave the writers would be if fundamentalists were really dangerous, rather than ignorant blowhards who move their lips when they read?
Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists were vile, sophomoric and stubbornly provocative. But they were brave souls who defended the flanks of a freedom we should all hold dear -- the absolute freedom to express even the most obnoxious of opinions. And the freedom to push back against the pieties of the self-righteous who seek to sway the consciences of the masses.