YESTERDAY I LOST four brothers - none of whom I'd ever met.

Stephane Charbonnier; Jean Cabut, a/k/a "Cabu"; Georges Wolinski; and Bernard Verlhac, a/k/a "Tignous," were the cartoonists assassinated along with their journalism colleagues at the French satire magazine, Charlie Hebdo.

"Charlie" was named after Charlie Brown, but it is related more closely to The Onion or Mad magazine than the Peanuts comic strip. It certainly could not be confused with straight newspapers, like the New York Times.

But, when it came time to defend free speech after the infamous Danish cartoons about Muhammad were published in 2005, Charlie Hebdo ran the cartoons, while the New York Times refrained, primly telling readers that they were essentially "gratuitous assaults." (The Inquirer ran one of the cartoons, and survived.)

I trust the cartoonists. When one group of people announces that their actions are holy and thus must not be questioned, we need cartoons. If a religion doesn't want its prophets ridiculed in a cartoon, they shouldn't do hateful things in the name of their prophets.

The Charlie Hebdo cartoonists went after everyone's religion. They were irreligious. In that way, they paid Islam a great compliment. They treated Islam equally with all the other religions they mocked. And they assumed that not every Muslim feels the same way on every issue.

A few years back, a group of about eight Arab cartoonists came through my office. They had eight different takes on the Danish cartoons, including one guy who said he didn't have a problem with them. He got in trouble with his paper for not cartooning on the subject.

In this country, cartoonists are protected by the First Amendment and fortified by a unanimous Supreme Court decision that Hustler Magazine founder Larry Flynt had the right to run a tasteless cartoon about evangelist Jerry Falwell's mother. The Supremes basically said, "It's a cartoon. It's humor. Get over it."

An editorial cartoon isn't just a joke about someone's mother. It takes a serious issue and humorously clarifies it by making the point visually clear.

It should elicit a reaction - whether that reaction is laughing or spitting your coffee across the table. Cartoons start people talking - or drawing their own rebuttal.

Cartoons don't kill people.

Falwell and Flynt became friends. Similarly, one of the imams who ginned up the controversy over the Danish cartoons came to recant his position. He and the cartoons' publisher became correspondents. In both cases, the cartoons provoked a conversation that needed to be had. We can't talk, though, if one of the parties is dead.

The good news is, this attack won't silence our pens.

- Signe Wilkinson