Drawing Blood

02/18/2015 11:36 am ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

Two gunmen killed one man and injured three police officers in Copenhagen, Denmark, Saturday, after storming a building where Swedish editorial cartoonist Lars Vilks and others were discussing free expression in response to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy a month ago.

The gunmen fled the scene, Copenhagen police said.

Police suspect the target of the violence was Vilks, whose satirical drawings of the Prophet Muhammad have long angered Muslims. He was not injured.

On January 7, gunmen murdered five editorial cartoonists and several others inside the Paris, France, newsroom of the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, shouting the murders were in retaliation for satiric drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, which appeared in that newspaper in recent years.

The Charlie Hebdo tragedy marked an appalling change in the response of those who are offended by editorial cartoons and other satiric commentary. Until then, editorial cartoonists had little to fear from their drawings.

Cartoonist Ranan Lurie once called satire "the most extreme form of expression that society will tolerate." But this is not to suggest that satiric writings or cartoons are always tolerated -- even in the United States, where we take considerable pride in our constitutional guarantee of free expression.

The George W. Bush administration and its supporters in the conservative media, including Fox commentators, questioned the patriotism of cartoonists such as Gary Trudeau, Tom Toles, and Ted Rall, for daring to criticize the government in a country where our democracy depends on our freedom to do just that.

Newspaper editors fired cartoonists who criticized the Bush administration. In one bizarre incident, the Secret Service tried to interrogate Los Angeles Times cartoonist Michael Ramirez for a cartoon that the government thought called for the assassination of President George W. Bush. The cartoon by Ramirez, a devoted supporter of Bush, was actually defending the president.

Americans defend free speech in other countries. However, we could do a lot more to defend editorial cartoonists here, who are given second-class status by newspapers.

The United States has never experienced anything like what happened Saturday in Copenhagen or what happened last month in France.

While cartoonists can be brutal toward politicians and political issues, they tend to steer clear of attacking religious deities.

This is obviously not the case elsewhere.

In the last quarter-century, Muslim extremists have committed innumerable acts of terrorism in the name of Muhammad. Cartoonists, who rely on irony and caricature, have responded by ridiculing the terrorists for misappropriating their prophet to justify their barbarism.

This irony is lost on extremists.

In late 2005, the Danish newspaper, the Jyllands-Posten, published a series of drawings ridiculing Islam and the prophet Muhammad, in particular. The cartoons were reprinted in European newspapers. One cartoon depicted Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with a burning fuse.

The cartoons created an international incident. Enraged Muslims burned Danish embassies in several countries and committed other acts of violence. A few Muslim countries waged a trade embargo against Denmark and other countries where the offending cartoons were published.

In 2007, Lars Vilks earned the contempt of Muslims by drawing the Prophet Muhammad as a dog. The Islamic State put a price of about 100,000 U.S. dollars on his head.

In 2010, one of the cartoonists who had depicted Muhammad with a bomb in his turban was attacked in his home by a Somali man wielding an axe. The cartoonist escaped and his would-be executioner was sentenced to nine years in prison and subsequent expulsion from Denmark.

It's fair to ask whether cartoonists who have no qualms about using Muhammad in their drawings avoid other religious figures, such as Jesus, or if they are satirizing Muhammad to make a political point or merely to attack the faith of Muslims.

But, that said, where is the sense of proportion in the response to the drawings that appeared in Charlie Hebdo and other newspapers?

A cartoonist drawing blood is far different from a terrorist drawing blood. One is satire. The other is murder.

A cartoon in response to the murders at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper depicts a masked gunman standing over a dead cartoonist.

"He drew first," the gunman says.