If I were technologically proficient, I’d edge this blog in black. How profoundly sad is the grievous slaughter of 12 yesterday in Paris, journalists and their police protectors at the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo. What an unspeakable attack on press freedom and the underpinnings of democracy. What a barbaric assault on humanity!
Say what you want about the French, who are sometimes satirized for their assumed attitudes of cultural superiority and occasionally over-weaning preciousness. They may have no First Amendment, but they have been stout defenders of freedom of expression since the French Revolution in 1789. That citizens have been taking to the streets carrying signs of “Je suis Charlie” says it all. Press freedom is in the French DNA.
Some commentators have said that just because you have a legal right to say something doesn’t mean it’s smart to say it. Charlie Hebdo had been warned to dial back their writing. It is true that the right to free speech brings with it a heap of responsibility. Free speech doesn’t include the right to lie, defame, libel, or, as we learned in Constitutional studies, shout fire in a crowded theater. And terrorists should never have the right to veto permissible speech because of their ideological dogma.
This weekly satirical magazine, already targeted in a firebombing in 2011, is clearly an equal opportunity offender. It didn’t satirize only Muslims. It also targeted priests, Orthodox Jews, politicians, authority figures in general. (Check out today’s outstanding Boston Globe cartoon editorial.) Contrast that with Wolf Blitzer’s cowardice on CNN in choosing not to show Hebdo’s cartoons yesterday afternoon.
Satire requires us to think. It demands that the audience be able to differentiate between what is being said on the surface and the underlying truths. Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal in 1729 called for the Irish to eat their babies as a solution to poverty and hunger. Some readers were outraged that on the surface he was touting the nutritional value of healthy infants, but his writing stands today as a compelling call to arms in the fight against squalor and malnutrition. As I said, satire requires us to think. It can be tricky.
So, too, with the current social and political relationships inside France and across Europe. This horrific attack can only fuel anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiments. At the same time, policies regarding public safety, self-isolation and civic engagement need to be revisited. This cultural clash isn’t confined to Europe. Pakistani citizens have been killed for objectionable speech. Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have been quick to criticize Islamaphobia elsewhere but are known for their intolerance in the name of Islam.
It would nice to think that this horror might be a turning point, where rational people of all persuasions could come together to fight militant fundamentalism, where media types could resist playing to our basest instincts. Unlike what Fox News would have you believe, thinking Muslims, including the head of the Grand Mosque in Paris, have condemned the Paris attack. Egyptian cartoonists have used the tools of the journalistic trade to condemn the extremists. The foreign minister of Egypt and the Arab League have decried the act of barbarism. As Nick Kristof points out in today’s NY Times, we can’t fall into the trap of thinking that there’s something inherently extreme in Islam.
The hope that something positive would emerge from the wreckage may be naïve. Too many disaffected, misguided or fanatical individuals have pledged to fight to the death against Western civilization. But, as Kristof reminds us, today’s battle is not between religions but between terrorists and moderates. We all have to stand up against religious profiling while defending the rights of Charlie Hebdo and others to engage in robust caricature and satire. This delicate balance is part of the challenge facing us today. We have to keep working at it.
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