Former Editor For ‘The Onion’ Gets Serious On Free Speech And Tragedy Of Charlie Hebdo


“That is the real threat: that we’ll allow our fear, or our anger, to kill ourselves.” 

There will be any number of think pieces and opinion articles written about the massacre of innocents in Paris yesterday at the hands of intolerant and fearful extremists but perhaps none will more directly resonate with American readers than an op/ed published on MSNBC by Joe Randazzo, former editor of the satirical magazine ‘The Onion‘. In it he talks about the death threats he and his staff have received over the years and a kind of familiarity he says he and his staff had with a sort of looming and elusive constant threat which, thankfully, never materialized in the kid of wholesale carnage we saw yesterday or in any firebombing attack such as the one Charlie Hebdo’s offices suffered in 2011.

Of particular importance was his discussion of free speech and the suicide of ideas.

This is radical ideology taken to an abhorrent new low. The footage and photographs that have so far emerged depict several armed men, dressed in tactical black. It looks like a highly organized attack, but an attack, ultimately, on what? An idea? You cannot kill an idea by murdering innocent people – though you can nudge it toward suicide.


That is the real threat: that we’ll allow our fear, or our anger, to kill ourselves.

He’s speaking here, of course, about the notion of self censorship, the notion that, in order to avoid trouble, writers and thinkers will say things just a little differently, that they’ll let an elusive fear steer their fingers and pens. He goes on to frame free speech in a way that, as I see it, serves as a reconfirmation of Western ideology about autonomy and natural rights, the right to speak your mind and to defend your right to speak your mind.

Our society is possibly the freest that humankind has yet produced and that freedom is predicated on one central idea: the right to speech. That right is understood as a natural extension of our very existence. In America, free speech is so important that the men who wrote our Bill of Rights put it first, but followed it up with our right to bear arms. To me, that’s always been a pretty strong message: Say what you want and, here, take some guns to make sure no one tries to stop you. But in this state of widespread social change – probably the most profound in centuries – we need to make sure that the ideal of the second amendment never, ever trumps the power of the first. That brute force never negates ideas.

In a time when we seem less tolerant of ideas we don’t agree with rather than more so, it’s both horrifying and stunning to once again see what that intolerance looks like when taken to its logical conclusion of forced silence and something to guard against in both society and in ourselves.

Is that an ideal worth dying for? I think it is. Should anyone ever have to pay for it with blood? I pray to God not. And it doesn’t really matter that I don’t quite know how to believe in God. Today, I’m praying anyway.

The article, in its entirety, can be found here.