Humor shouldn’t be a capital offense

We don’t kill over it.

People gunned down over jokes.

In essence, that’s what happened when terrorists shot to death 12 people — including staffers at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical publication in Paris — over a cartoon they believed offensively depicted the prophet Muhammad.

Newspaper staffers were threatened and their building firebombed in 2011 for the same reason. The publication even posted an armed guard at its offices.

As someone who often tells off-color and offensive jokes, I know I’m lucky that the people I often skewer (mostly mayors and gentrifiers) don’t firebomb my house or try to kill me.

People do not deserve to die for their views no matter how offensive they are or how offensive their work is. If we believe in freedom of expression, my beliefs, your beliefs, and even Muhammad’s are fair game. If we don’t like something, we can protest it or boycott it.

But we don’t kill over it.

Despite our anger, we must be careful not to retaliate, or to support those vengeful against Muslims. We can’t say, “Oh, look a Muslim did a bad thing, let’s get the Muslims.”

I remember that when I was a kid, a car in the motorcade of a Jewish leader accidentally caused the death of a Guyanese kid in Crown Heights. The incident touched off a three-day race riot in 1991.

There’s a difference between solidarity and inciting violence toward innocent people. The weapons of those killed at Charlie Hebdo were pencils and pens, and those are the weapons we should pick up in their defense. No others.

These writers and cartoonists are heroes. Not because making fun of Muhammad is fearless, not because mocking someone’s faith with crude jokes is intrepid, but because they stood up to firebombing and death threats and ultimately died for free speech.

Maybe the cartoons were offensive and mean, but we don’t choose who enjoys freedom of expression and who does not, and we can’t allow someone with a gun to make that decision.

#JeSuisCharlie is the hashtag that popped up in response to the attack, and sums it up perfectly: I am Charlie. If you believe that people shouldn’t die for what they write or draw, if you believe that offending someone shouldn’t be a capital offense, then you, too, are Charlie. I am Charlie.

Rachel Figueroa-Levin tweets as @Jewyorican and @ElBloombito.

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