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Rick McKee: As a cartoonist, the Paris attack hurt on a personal level

Our freedoms are at risk, plain and simple, he says

Editor’s note: Rick McKee has been the editorial cartoonist of The Augusta Chronicle since 1998 and his cartoons are syndicated worldwide through

(CNN) —  

A brutal attack Wednesday on the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo – famous for its blistering cartoons – left 12 people dead. In the aftermath of such cowardice, we in free Western societies have to ask ourselves: What kind of world are we going to live in? And will we allow these intolerant radical Islamic bullies to decide for us what we can read and what we can’t?

As an editorial cartoonist working in a small Southern town in America, it might have been easy for me to feel insulated from attacks thousands of miles away. But we live in a global society, and this attack hit me on a very personal level.

Rick McKee
PHOTO: Augusta Chronicle Staff
Rick McKee

I was fortunate enough this past fall to travel to Paris, and also to a little town called St.-Just-le-Martel in the countryside, where locals throw an annual bash celebrating France’s long love affair with the art of cartooning, illustration and caricature. It’s a wonderful event, and it’s clear that the French love their cartoonists and their art. They crowd in by the hundreds to meet the artists and to maybe get their caricatures drawn.

It was there that I met one of the victims in Wednesday’s attack, cartoonist Georges Wolinski. From what I gathered, he was something of a rock star in France. Like all the artists there, he was funny, pleasant and gracious with his time, and his death, along with 11 others, is beyond appalling.

The reality is that this is not just an attack on Charlie Hebdo, but an attack on all of us who hold dear freedom of expression, no matter where we live. Charlie Hebdo is irreverent, anti-religious and occasionally vulgar. The writers and cartoonists routinely anger many of its readers. Back in 2007, for example, it reprinted the Prophet Mohammed cartoons that were first published in a Danish newspaper, illustrations that had outraged the Muslim community. And in 2011, Charlie Hebdo “invited” Mohammed to be guest editor and showcased a caricature of him on the cover.

Since then, it has been reported that several of the editors and cartoonists have lived under the constant threat of death. Yet for every cartoonist I have ever met, the occupation is more than a job: It is a lifelong obsession.

And while I have never considered this obsession that I share to be a life-threatening career, it is hard to escape the fact that this is now the world we live in, one where hooded gunmen kill journalists and cartoonists in cold blood because they are angered by printed words and drawings.

So, how do we respond? It would be much easier – and safer – to simply shut up, put the pen down and walk away. The editors and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo certainly could have done that at the first sign of trouble. Stephane Charbonnier, the editorial director and one of the cartoonists, for example, was under special high-profile protection, according to The Daily Telegraph, which quoted the publication’s attorney as saying, “The threats were constant. It was frightening.”

Yet Charbonnier persisted, refusing to give in to fear. And in the end it cost him his life.

Opinion: Cartoonists, killed for their art, and humanity

How that can be so is bewildering. We should be focusing on issues like beating hunger and poverty. Yet despite the remarkable technological advances of Western civilization, we find ourselves engaged in a clash with extremists stuck in the seventh century, bent on oppressing women and imposing suffocating religious views on the rest of the globe.

Our freedoms are at risk, plain and simple, and we must all decide how we will respond. For my part, I will go back to my drawing board and try to make sense of this ridiculous, senseless and vicious assault on my friends and colleagues an ocean away.

Under constant threat of death, Charbonnier was quoted in the French newspaper Le Monde as saying, “I would rather die standing than live on my knees.” That seems like a good place to start.

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