Sharing this could get you killed.

The American colonist Patrick Henry, the French cartoonist Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier, and the future of liberty

Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier (Credit Franck Prevel/Getty Images)

Despite risking high treason, in March of 1775 Patrick Henry said the following to his fellow Virginians: “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.” A little over a year later, the Declaration was written and a new nation of men and women fought by Henry’s side for their independence.

At this time in history, however, the greater world rejected the idea of independence, of liberty — and violently so. But as Patrick Henry and other self-determined individuals made clear: if world opinion required their silence and subjugation, then world opinion be damned. For them, it was literally “liberty or death.” And although many lives were lost in the battle, liberty eventually triumphed, happily for us.

I sometimes wonder if freemen today would have had the courage to risk death for independence during the American Revolution. I am at least certain of one man: Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier.

In a little-known interview posted on YouTube three years ago — on July 4th, 2012 — sits Charb, a kind and thoughtful Frenchman who drew satirical cartoons for a living.

Charb and his newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, poked fun at Islamic (and countless other) authorities who didn’t like to be poked fun at — and for that, he received death threats, and his offices were literally firebombed in 2011, luckily at night so no one was killed.

Charb outside his bombed Hebdo office. The New York Daily News chose to censor the cartoon on the cover of this Hebdo edition. (Credit Alexander Klein/AFP/Getty Images)

Similar to Patrick Henry in his day, instead of being popularly supported for risking his life in defense of liberty, Charb was censored and censured by world opinion. Here is TIME’s veteran reporter, Bruce Crumley, blithely writing on the day of the bombing — a bombing that could have taken innocent lives:

“So, yeah, the violence inflicted upon Charlie Hebdo was outrageous, unacceptable, condemnable, and illegal. But apart from the ‘illegal’ bit, Charlie Hebdo’s current edition is all of the above, too.”

Although Crumley had very harsh words for Charb’s newspaper, he didn’t include an image of it for his readers to independently judge, so in case you haven’t seen the actual edition he was referring to:

The cover of this special edition — Chariah Hebdo, playing on the word sharia — depicts Muhammed saying, “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!”

And it wasn’t only newspapermen doing the denouncing. Here’s the leader of France in 2006, President Jacques Chirac, condemning the “overt provocations” of Hebdo’s earlier work: “Anything that can hurt the convictions of someone else, in particular religious convictions, should be avoided.” By this logic — which is today’s popular opinion — Martin Luther shouldn’t have written his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 (so no Reformation), and the biting Voltaire should have never even picked up his pen in the 18th century (so to hell with the Enlightenment completely).

Despite a minority of principled exceptions, in general Charb was reviled as “offensive” and a “blasphemer” (i.e. ~someone who criticizes sacred beliefs). Note that in parts of Europe & the Middle East, blaspheme and other “hate speech” is illegal and can lead to imprisonment and execution. Even given this literally life-threatening context, the calm Charb stood strong, unceasingly defending his work. Here he is in that July 4, 2012 YouTube posting:

  • Charb: There are a lot of countries in Europe where blaspheme is forbidden, but in France we are … a free country … and I hope we can stay like a free country.
  • Interviewer: Let’s hope for the best, and thank you for keep publishing.
  • Charb: Well, we have no choice. If we stop publish[ing], we are dead. We can’t live in jail. It is not possible. So we continue.

And continue Charb did, right until the end — when, this past January, he was gunned down in his Paris office, murdered alongside many of his colleagues at Charlie Hebdo.

— — — — — — —

The word liberty has almost become a farce in pop culture and politics, a thing young liberals use to mock old conservatives. For me, however, liberty — particularly the right to free speech — is precious. Life would not be worth living if I couldn’t run my mouth, openly criticize and be criticized in turn. But such a free existence is relatively new historically: before America, *there was never in the history of mankind* a nation that legally secured man’s rights. That’s an incredible achievement, but also a fragile one.

Self-censored, The New York Times found ways to hide the actual cartoon that cost Charb his life, arguing that: “Out of respect to our readers we have avoided those [images] we felt were offensive.” (Credit Christophe Ena / Associated Press)

In the free world today, a dangerous self-censorship has developed, a misguided attempt to shield people from offense. And as a result, our great experiment in liberty and independence is slowly being reversed. We are making ourselves submissive, dependent on those who by their own admission despise freedom.

“As soon as a thinker starts to reveal his ideas, you will find hundreds of fatwas that accused him of being an infidel just because he had the courage to discuss some sacred topics.” -Raif

Many Islamic regimes explicitly abhor Western freedom and brutally punish speech they deem immoral. For example, in Saudi Arabia a blogger named Raif Badawi was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam.” His crime? Creating Saudi Arabian Liberals, a website for Saudis to openly debate social/political issues affecting their nation. Raif now sits in jail, his back scourged and his tongue silenced.

Tragically, in our own freer countries, through self-censorship (America) and laws “limiting” speech (France, Denmark), we are doing the censoring for these world’s oppressors — by taping our own mouths shut.

(Credit Markus Schreiber / Associated Press)

(Regarding the blight of true bigots, xenophobes, etc. — which Charb and Raif are most certainly not — the fact is they will always exist. But such muck — the pathetic few who scornfully call black people niggers, gays fags, Jews pigs, all Muslims terrorists — they don’t belong behind bars for expressing their stupidity. Rather, they belong without friends, shunned by the good of society.)

This Independence Day, I’m writing about liberty, free speech, because it is clearly under attack — violently by Islamic terrorists, legislatively by world politicians, and self-destructively by the (currently) free press. Luckily, to solve the problem we don’t need to take up arms, as Patrick Henry had to. We need only speak our minds — as Charb did — and defend the right of others to do the same, regardless of how much we may or may not like what they have to say.

Please share Charb’s story.


“I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.” -Charb, 8/21/67 to 1/7/2015

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