Much of the world was horrified by the savagery exhibited in Paris. That horror, at least in the West, was not so much that people had been killed — that happens regularly enough — but a response to the reason for which they were slaughtered: namely for the “crime” of publishing cartoons that displayed a rather unflattering portrayal of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
Shocking as the attacks on unarmed cartoonists are, violent assaults on free speech aren’t uncommon, even in today’s world. It’s worth remembering there are mass graves in Germany, China, Cambodia and the former Soviet Union filled with the remains of those who said, wrote, drew or published something determined to be unacceptable by the state. Cuba, whom President Barack Obama feels has been treated as a pariah for too long now, imprisons, tortures and murders their own (extremely watered down) versions of Charlie Hebdo every year. Indeed, the very concept of free speech is a relatively new phenomenon, one largely restricted to the place where it developed, the Christian West.
Only this time, it didn’t happen in Nazi death camps, the Gulag, the prisons of Tehran or Beijing or the concentration camps of North Korea and Cuba. It happened in the center of western tolerance, Paris, to people who weren’t clandestinely publishing treatises of resistance as part of an underground movement in an oppressive state, but who lived and worked ostensibly under the aegis of a free society, drawing and publishing cartoons in a satirical magazine.
The reactions of some, mostly on the left, range from absurd to deeply ironic. The absurd reactions are from those who see some sort of moral equivalency between the Muslim extremists who staged the Paris attacks and those of other religions. And by “other,” they mean Christians.
There was a clip from an MSNBC show where the guest tried to make the connection between the Paris shooters and Jerry Falwell’s lawsuit against Larry Flint and Hustler magazine in the 1980s. He equated the two incidents on the basis that both were examples of religious extremism gone amok and therefore virtually indistinguishable. I saw the clip, and yes, this person seems to be taking himself seriously. Jonah Goldberg of the National Review offered a superb analysis of this. I won’t recreate it here except to reiterate his point, which one despairs need be made: filing a lawsuit in a court of law and shooting up an editorial office are two rather different things.
As are religions, in very real terms. Now, I will contend there are moderate Muslims, millions of them, who disavow actions like those carried out with regularity in the name of their faith. But it would be absurd to assert that the fundamental differences between, for instance, Islam and Christianity are of no import. As uncomfortable as the fact may be, there are elements of Islam that attract, perhaps even vouchsafe, acts of jihadist violence and which help put the religion at odds with western values. It was Islamic extremists who caused the violence in Paris (and elsewhere). Even trying to equate these acts with the bombing of abortuaries by self-identified Christian fundamentalists is ridiculous. Those acts are very rare exceptions and so far afield of Christian teaching and doctrine as to deny the link. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Islamic violence.
There’s more than a hint of irony in the indignation being exhibited in some circles over the Charlie Hebdo killings and their effects on free speech. As David Brooks wrote, had the cartoons that so offended Muslims been printed or distributed on pretty much any American university, their creators would have been rode out of town on a rail, banished for life and possible even brought up on hate-speech charges. The soft tyranny of political correctness, hate speech laws and intolerance for other viewpoints (as exemplified in the disinvitation of speakers like Condoleezza Rice from college campuses) remains a far cry from bullets, but are all offensive to free speech in their own right.
It would be folly to suggest free speech has no limits — the proverbial shout of “fire” in a theater, for instance. Such speech that actually causes real harm as broadcasting American troop movements during combat operations or exposing children to pornography should face appropriate sanction from a free society. And we ought not emancipate speech from reasonable consequence.
If you say something stupid, repulsive or outrageous, you shouldn’t be immune from being called out on it. But you shouldn’t be gunned down over it.
Free speech can be ugly. I’m not Charlie, as the meme goes. In fact, what little of Charlie Hebdo I’ve seen I find distasteful. But the western inheritance that I defend instructs — demands — that that I defend its creators from those who would slaughter them for exercising their right to create it.
In that spirit, and in homage to JFK in Berlin, I suggest instead that je suis un Parisien.