“She didn’t say goodbye, or anything,” Shannon Perry says, arms folded across her chest, her golden dress scattering prisms of warm light against a glass drawing table with every sigh and shrug. “She was just… gone.”
Perry is recalling the strange week back in September 2010 when the Seattle Weekly printed the following statement:
“You may have noticed that Molly Norris’ comic is not in the paper this week. That’s because there is no more Molly. The gifted artist is alive and well, thankfully. But on the insistence of top security specialists at the FBI, she is, as they put it, ‘going ghost.’”
Molly’s story came back to light last month after twelve cartoonists and journalists were gunned down at the offices of the French satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo. They were slain by Islamic radicals who were offended by their depiction of the Prophet Mohammed.
Norris, a Seattle cartoonist who drew for local publications like the Seattle Weekly and City Arts, found herself on the same al-Qaeda hit list as some of the murdered Hebdo artists.
On the advice of the FBI, she abandoned her life and work when Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki called for her assassination in retaliation for posting a comic referencing Mohammed.
Perry, 33, is the owner of Valentine’s Tattoo in Capitol Hill and lead singer of local avant-garde pop outfit, Gazebos. She can’t imagine giving up her life’s work and identity like Norris, her good friend.
“I can’t think of anything more terrifying,” Perry laments, eyes glinting behind tortoise-frame glasses. “I love my life, I love my business, and I love my friends. That would be worse than dying.”
Two years before the FBI insisted she go into hiding, their friendship developed when Norris approached Perry and her band mate and asked if she would make a documentary on their (now former) band, Katherine Hepburn’s Voice.
Things quickly got serious for Norris after she posted a comic online in May 2010 proposing a tongue-in-cheek event called “Everybody Draw Mohammad Day.” The comic was sponsored by a fictional organization, “Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor.”
The comic spurred threats of violent retaliation through its depiction of the Prophet Mohammed on dainty items such as a thimble, a domino, and a teacup.
Cartoonist David Horsey says his comics probably offend someone every time they are published, especially since his area of concentration is American politics. He was drawing cartoons for Seattle Post-Intelligencer when Norris disappeared. Horsey has never depicted Mohammed in his drawings, but says he feels that Norris’ satirical plea was meant to be edgy and thought-provoking, but not insulting.
Norris wanted her community to realize that Islamic radicals could not massacre the whole world if everybody drew a picture of Mohammad. This is a critical point Horsey raises concerning Norris’ cartoon.
The violent reactions she received were, as he puts it, “completely insane.”
“There were ten of these cute little cartoons, and yet, they elicited this threatening reaction,” Horsey says. “It was so far away from what the French cartoonists were doing at Charlie Hebdo.”
On Twitter, #JesuisCharlie has been tweeted and re-tweeted over 5 million times. The French phrase, which translates to “I am Charlie,” has been used to display solidarity with the journalists and cartoonists slain in the Paris shootings.
I asked Perry and Horsey, “Êtes-vous Charlie?” – Are you Charlie?
They both said yes.
Perry says she sees Norris in herself.
“I like to play with controversial things and raise a level of awareness. I’ve done a bunch of cartoons in my life, too, and that comic she drew, that is something that I could see myself drawing,” says Perry. “I don’t mean anything bad by the stuff that I do or draw, but I don’t see the harm in poking fun at everything.”
Back in 2010, Norris told City Arts, “Artists have to be not afraid when they create….You have to be responsible too with your freedom. It’s such a fine line.”
Depictions of Mohammed are a lightning rod for threats of violence — maybe that’s why they’re such a tempting target for artists looking to test the limits of free speech. And even if such depictions are legally allowed, the threat of violence can be a form of censorship.
Norris was an artist, a journalist, and a dear friend to many in Seattle. Her forced disappearance is not only a form of censorship, it’s a form of erasure, in part caused by no one else standing up and saying, “Je suis Molly.”
As the Seattle Weekly put it, there is no more Molly. To honor the life she was forced to abandon, Perry and Horsey hope that artists and journalists will continue thinking critically and engaging in dialogue about the limitations of expression imposed by violent entities.
As Perry points out, “Free speech just isn’t very free when the price you pay for offending someone is your life.”