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'Charlie Hebdo' Laughed In The Face Of Violence; Will Future Satirists?

This cover ran in 2011, in response to the firebombing of the <em>Charlie Hebdo</em> offices.
Charlie Hebdo
This cover ran in 2011, in response to the firebombing of the Charlie Hebdo offices.

Despite a 2011 firebombing at the Charlie Hebdo offices, and continuing threats and heightened security around the building, according to its editor-in-chief, the staff of the weekly never slowed down.

"Nobody ask, 'Uh, what we do now?' " editor-in-chief Stephane Charbonnier told Drew Rougier-Chapman of Cartoonists Rights Network International six months later.

The magazine, which Rougier-Chapman describes as "a cross between Mad Magazine, Playboy cartoons and The Daily Show," was founded in the 1960s by cartoonists and journalists who wanted to use humor, as one of them put it, as "a smack in the face" to celebrities, politicians — and definitely to religion.

So the first issue following the attack had a cover cartoon that showed two men kissing: one a Muslim, the other a Charlie Hebdo editor.

"It's a good French kiss," Charbonnier told Rougier-Chapman with a laugh. Elsewhere in the interview he said that if Muslims considered Muhammad too holy to be the target of humor, "your God is very, very small; your prophet is a midget."

Charbonnier, who was among the dozen killed in Wednesday's attack, was fearless, says Jean-Luc Hess, a journalist and former head of Radio France.

"He used to say, well, you know, 'I don't have a car, I don't have a wife, I don't have children, so what could they do to me?' You know, 'I'm not scared.' But I guess he got it wrong, because we have to take this very, very seriously."

James Poniewozik, a senior writer at Time, says the massacre poses a threat to any satire.

The genre already is treated skittishly by media companies, as seen in Sony Pictures' initial decision to pull the North Korea-mocking comedy The Interview following a hacking and threats of violence.

And when the TV cartoon South Park was planning to depict Muhammad in an episode, "it didn't require anyone physically attacking the Comedy Central offices for somebody to get nervous and say, 'Oh, you know, this isn't worth it,' " and censor the offending image, says Poniewozik.

Such moves are unacceptable to author Salman Rushdie, a fatwa-targeted novelist who released a statement Wednesday urging people to defend satire, "a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity."

Those words probably would have been appreciated by Charbonnier, who in the interview with Rougier-Chapman after the 2011 firebombing said there was no way Charlie Hebdo would back down.

"We have no choice," he said. "If we [cease] to publish, we are dead."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.