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Founding Onion editor on Charlie Hebdo attack: ‘We’re all agonized over the violence’

Scott Dikkers knows satire can be a dangerous business, especially these days.

As the founding editor and former co-owner of The Onion, his tenure with the renowned Chicago-based satirical publication included the period immediately following the attacks of Sept. 11 (here’s the Onion’s cutting and celebrated response) and was pockmarked by threats from various groups — religious, military — that took offense to certain stories.

In the carefree, security-free 1990s, one guy even made his way into the Onion’s Madison, Wisconsin, offices to deliver those threats in person.

But the attempts at intimidation remained verbal. None, fortunately, led to acts of violence, like the ones Wednesday at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, where reports say three masked gunmen took the lives of at least a dozen people, including many members of the satirical publication’s editorial staff.

Never shying from controversy, Charlie Hebdo once produced an issue “guest edited” by the Prophet Muhammad and in another, according to an article in the New York Times, depicted Muhammad “naked and in sexual poses.”

“Certainly lately we’ve seen a lot of satire targeted,” Dikkers said, referring to such instances as the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the Sony cyber-terrorism attacks associated with the film “The Interview,” which depicts the killing of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “It’s a tragic day for comedy, a tragic time for comedy. I don’t know, though, that that means it’s [more] difficult [to do] now. Satirists have always gotten in trouble.”

“I would hate to characterize it as, ‘Things are getting so bad,’ because I think it’s really important that people be able to say what they want to say,” he added. “And obviously, some people feel like if they have a religious belief that says you can’t say certain things, then they get to impose that on everyone else. And I think that’s the real problem.”

So what are satirists to do in the face of a horrific assault like the one in Paris?

“Well, it’s always a very fine balance to continue to try to satirize and continue to try to be funny, because that’s your job, in the face of tragedy,” Dikkers says. “That’s an ongoing challenge that satirists have nowadays. In a case like [Paris], where the satirists themselves are victims, there’s an added balance in asking yourself, ‘Am I willing to risk harm to myself by writing what I’m about to write?’ And it’s an awful situation for any satirist to be in, because somebody who’s a satirist is a satirist because that’s who they are. That’s how they make sense of the world. That’s their contribution to the world.

“And when they start questioning what they’re able to write or how free they are to write, that’s not a good situation.”

Update: On Wednesday afternoon, the Onion posted this response to the Paris attacks.