Twenty minutes before the night's main event begins, Lindaman's Gourmet Bistro is wall-to-wall packed.
The crowd filling the South Hill café appears to be a public radio fundraiser's dream. Older. White, for the most part. And willing to brave a frosty midwinter Wednesday night for a discussion about a news story that happened weeks prior, and half a world away.
Strangers squeeze into seats dotting the room, and latecomers lean on the bar serving up cocktails, or the glowing deli case full of chocolate peanut butter pie, twice-baked potatoes, meatballs and chicken parm. Some of the food makes its way out to the café's communal tables adorned with cups of coffee, glasses of wine and bottles of Stella Artois.
The friendly chatter in the room dies down as editorial cartoonist Milt Priggee and Islam specialist David Fenner pick up microphones and sit on stools near an illuminated screen. They are here to lead a discussion called "Killer Cartoons: Is the Pen Mightier Than the Sword?" a late addition to Humanities Washington's Think & Drink program that was scheduled after Islamic terrorists attacked the editorial offices of French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo last month.
A short history lesson fills the first part of the evening. Priggee discusses how valued free expression is in France, particularly as compared to the United States. He shows cartoons he's drawn skewering American racism or political scandals, only to be "killed" by fearful editors.
The conversation is freewheeling, and laughter between sips comes easy as Priggee points out some of the hypocrisies inherent in clashes between cartoonists, their bosses and the public at large. Alcohol is tried and true as a social lubricant and gives the Think & Drink events a distinctly different vibe than the same discussion set in a campus lecture hall or library: Friendly. Chatty. Communal.
A couple of drinks, though, can also unlock some opinions previously kept in check, or exaggerate one's anger at a perceived injustice.
Grumbling among the audience starts as Fenner moves the discussion from how France came to have such a large, disillusioned, impoverished and segregated Muslim population to why the terrorist cell took the murderous step of attacking Priggee's peers at Charlie Hebdo.
"They picked a group of people and punched down," Fenner says, describing Charlie Hebdo's attitude toward the country's Muslims. Circulation would go up, Fenner notes, whenever the magazine mocked Islam. "To my mind, they are afflicting the afflicted, rather than afflicting the comfortable. ... For much of the Muslim community of France, what Charlie Hebdo was doing was pure bigotry."
The murmurs get louder and hands shoot up among the crowd. Some simply want to proclaim that the discussion has veered off. Others describe their own experiences with France and how much its countrymen value secularization. Some pointedly ask why the discussion has turned the terrorists into the victims.
"No religion endorses murder for offense, except Islam!" proclaims one older man in a suit standing in the back of the room.
Some gasp at the point while others nod in agreement. Fenner quickly reiterates that the terrorists are violent extremists — and utterly in the wrong in the Charlie Hebdo case and in their interpretation of the Quran.
"All of our faith traditions have holy texts that have those contradictions," Fenner says. "I hope we're not throwing the 99.975 percent of peaceful Muslims out with the extremists."
That wish was left uncomfortably unanswered as the crowd dispersed into the cold, clear and peaceful Spokane night. ♦