As the crescendo of “Je suis Charlie” declarations slowly subsides, more and more people begin to question this slogan. Why should we identify with a rather crude magazine to express our opposition to terror? Why should we identify with Charlie Hebdo’s sense of humor to show our allegiance to freedom of speech?
Some go further, and ask whether freedom of speech is even the real story here. The terrorists targeted a specific magazine that insulted them, not freedom of speech as such. As Al Jazeera’s English editor and executive producer Salah-Aldeen Khadr wrote to his staff, “insisting on the right to be obnoxious and offensive just because you can” is not the same as defending freedom of expression.
Salah-Aldeen Khadr wants us to see the attack on Charlie Hebdo as an isolated response to insults. But the Islamist terrorists that walked into Charlie’s headquarters in January 7th joined a long history of attacks that specifically targeted jokes. Dictators and terrorists throughout history lashed out against people who made fun of them. And the deep underlying reason behind these attacks has everything to do with freedom.
Take, for example, Stalin’s years of terror. The legendary Russian dissident Luda Alexeyeva was a young student during that period. In her autobiography, The Thaw Generation, she recalls meeting a friend whose husband disappeared. “He was exiled to Siberia for ten years for telling a joke about the regime,” the friend explained. Then, without missing a beat, she went on to share the joke with Luda, who later passed it on as well. Why did people continue telling anti-regime jokes despite the risk? And why did Stalin respond so harshly in the first place?
Both Stalin and his subjects recognized anti-regime jokes for what they were: a way to assert at least a small degree of inner freedom, a self that was not fully controlled by the regime. People didn’t risk imprisonment for an entertaining pastime, they risked it because the ability to laugh at their oppressors was a proof of humanity and autonomy. And Stalin couldn’t afford to ignore such jokes, because they revealed the limits of his control, and could eventually lead to open defiance.
Dictators may seem all-powerful. They may have armies and bombs. But at the end of the day, their power lies in the submission of their subjects. They can’t kill or imprison every single person. They need their subjects to be too scared and hopeless to resist them, too isolated and brainwashed to put up a fight. When people share anti-regime jokes, the dictators hear a terrifying message: “We are not nearly as afraid or as isolated as you need us to be. You don’t control us as fully as you think.”
The dictators know that this message heralds their demise. Today it’s just a joke, just a small assertion of inner freedom. But what will it be tomorrow? If people dare to laugh, what will they do next? Luda Alexeyeva may have started by sharing harmless jokes, but she later became an international symbol of open defiance in the face of tyranny. The dictators know that, and try to uproot the jokes and what they stand for, by instilling more fear.
Terrorists operate in a similar way. They try to control us through fear, and make us submit to their demands. Our inner freedom, our ability to say “no” despite the fear, is the greatest obstacle in their way. Like Stalin, they recognize our ability to joke as a sign of inner freedom, and target it as such.
In recent weeks, cyber terrorists from North Korea and radical Islamic terrorists in Paris brought the war on jokes into our homes. Make no mistake: Contrary to what Salah-Aldeen Khadr tells us, the war on jokes is at the very heart of the war on freedom. The dictators and terrorists of our day want us silent and somber, because laughter means that we are free. And free people don’t submit to their demands.
Let’s not give them the satisfaction. For us, political satire is a matter of entertainment, something to discuss freely and enjoy or criticize. We can indulge in long debates about the appropriateness of certain jokes, and we can afford to dislike them. But when Kim Jong-un and the Paris terrorists targeted The Interview and Charlie Hebdo, they made them into more than a matter of personal taste. They turned them into the front line in the war between freedom and fear. We may like or dislike Charlie’s sense of humor, but we must make clear that in this war, we stand firm on the side of freedom. In this war, we are all Charlie.