On November 13, 2015, Islamic terrorists attacked several sites in and around Paris, in the process killing 130 people and injuring nearly 400 others. The Islamic State claimed responsibility. One of the attackers had only recently arrived in Europe in the flood of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war.
The attack of November 13 was the second major attack to take place in Paris this year. On January 7, Islamists attacked the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The attackers killed eleven people and injured eleven others. Five of the dead--Jean Cabut, Stéphane Charbonnier, Philippe Honoré, Bernard Verlhac, and Georges Wolinski--were cartoonists. Wolinski was also Jewish. There were further terrorist actions in and around Paris over the next two days and countervailing shows of solidarity with the people of Paris in the following weeks. Our current president was conspicuously absent from the largest event, which took place on January 11 in Paris and included two million people and more than forty world leaders.
On November 17 in Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry had the following to say about the two attacks:
There's something different about what happened [on November 13] from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that. There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of--not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, okay, they're really angry because of this and that. This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn't to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people.
It isn't clear whether Kerry was speaking for himself, the President, the United States government, or anyone else, despite his claim that "everybody would feel that." He may not have been speaking in any formal capacity at all. His words sound informal and off the cuff. They are very nearly incoherent. Nonetheless, Secretary Kerry seems to have revealed his true thoughts, and his use of the word "legitimacy," despite any subsequent correction, places him in a category with Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League; cartoonist Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury fame; and several members of PEN International, all of whom have suggested that the five murdered cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo provoked their own deaths or even that they deserved to die.
In response to the attacks of November 13, more than two dozen governors have stated that they will not accept Syrian refugees into their states, while at least five others have requested that any refugees be screened before entering. Among the governors not accepting refugees is Kentucky Governor-Elect Matt Bevin. On November 19, the Lexington Herald-Leader published an editorial cartoon by Hoosier cartoonist Joel Pett. The cartoon shows Bevin quaking with fear and hiding under his desk. On the floor is a map of Syria and a newspaper with the headline "Paris." On the governor-elect's desk are three pictures of his children. A fourth is being held by one of Bevin's aides, who is saying: "Sir, they're not terrorists . . . they're your own adopted kids!" I should point out that Matt Bevin is the father of ten children, four of whom are adopted from Ethiopia.
Governor-Elect Bevin responded almost immediately to the cartoon. In an article called "Bevin Criticizes Herald-Leader for Editorial Cartoon Involving His Adopted Children" in the Lexington Herald-Leader (Nov. 19, 2015), he was quoted as saying:
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Indeed, today, the Lexington Herald-Leader chose to articulate with great clarity the deplorably racist ideology of "cartoonist" Joel Pett. Shame on Mr. Pett for his deplorable attack on my children and shame on the editorial controls that approved this overt racism.
Let me be crystal clear, the tone of racial intolerance being struck by the Herald-Leader has no place in the Commonwealth of Kentucky and will not be tolerated by our administration.
Pett, who lived in Africa for five years in his childhood, said that he is not a racist. He chalks up Bevin's reaction to "inexperience on his part."
Joel Pett's cartoon may or not be on target. It may or may not be in good taste. That's beside the point. The point is that a cartoonist here in the United States is facing threats, veiled as they may be, from someone far more powerful than he is, simply for expressing himself as an artist. In this country, that threat is ridiculous. Joel Pett is obviously not taking it seriously. In Paris, however, five cartoonists paid for their art with their lives. Contrary to what Garry Trudeau said, they were not operating from a position of power. They were not "punching down." They were in fact punching up against people far more powerful than they were. Their only weapon was a pen. Their killers used firearms and explosives.
What the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists drew may at times have been in poor taste, just as what Joel Pett and other political cartoonists draw may at times be. The issues, however, are simple: either artists have the right to express themselves or they do not. The threat or use of force against them is either legitimate or it is not. Where the Islamic terrorists stand on these issues is clear. Their position is not surprising. What is less clear is just where John Kerry, Garry Trudeau, and Matt Bevin stand. That's the part that is surprising, and I have to say, alarming.
Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley