In Paris and in America, freedom is under assault by extremists from around the globe.
Men with rifles heard shouting “Allahu Akbar” murdered 12 on Wednesday. Ten of the victims worked for a french satirical newspaper called Charlie Hebdo, which frequently published cartoons offensive to Muslims. The other two victims were police officers.
The attack on Charlie Hebdo is not merely an attack on one publication. Nor was it merely an attack on the media. This was an attack on freedom of speech, on the concept of the public sphere, the agora, in which no one group sets limits for our mutual discourse. Extremist Imam Anjem Choudary made clear on Twitter what the extremists want: a curtailing of everyone’s freedom of speech in line with their beliefs.
Freedom of expression does not extend to insulting the Prophets of Allah, whatever your views on the events in Paris today! #ParisShooting
— Anjem Choudary (@anjemchoudary) January 7, 2015
It may be tempting to some to give in to the heckler’s veto. Sadly, there are some taking that line already today. The Financial Times has already written a piece making the argument that Charlie Hebdo’s editors acted stupidly:
Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims. If the magazine stops just short of outright insults, it is nevertheless not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo.
This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion. It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.
The thinking goes like this: Yes, you could publish this or that offensive cartoon, but is it worth it? Wouldn’t it be smarter to employ some cost-benefit calculus? In FT’s formulation “common sense” is really equivalent to self-imposed censorship. Don’t provoke. Limit your freedom before someone else limits it for you.
Unfortunately, this sort of thinking is all too common. The Paris attack comes just a couple months after a hacking scheme and terrorist threats which caused major theater chains in the U.S. to opt out of showing a feature film offensive to the dictator of North Korea. Sony, the company which produced the film, briefly cancelled the release entirely and then reversed course and made plans to release it in independent theaters and online.
The two incidents are obviously not alike in their results. The Paris attack is a vile mass murder while the hackers in the U.S. merely issued a threat, albeit of a 9/11 style attack on theaters. What the two incidents have in common is not their source or methods but their ultimate goal. In both cases terror is being used to try and control and limit the freedom of others.
Incredibly, even in Hollywood, whose entire business is built on freedom of expression, most people balked at saying no to threats. Only a handful of Hollywood bigwigs were willing to stand up for the principle of free speech. Say what you will about George Clooney’s politics, but he got this one right.
Today Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about the Paris attack saying, “Brave and decent people around the world will never give in to the intimidation and the terror that that those seeking to destroy those values employ.” That’s the right tone and a big improvement over some of the apologetic nonsense we saw from the Obama administration after the Benghazi attack and the glacial response we saw after the hacker’s threats on theater-goers.
We must not begin calculating the value of our freedom as if it were for sale. We must not yield to the temptation of “common sense” self-censorship. Let’s refuse to negotiate with the terrorists. Let’s defend every bit of our freedom every time it comes under attack anywhere in the world. That way we can ensure it will still be there for our children.