Words can hardly convey the grief and disgust felt at Wednesday’s executions of the editor, cartoonists, and others — 10 people in all — at France’s satirical weekly magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Two policemen also were killed, and 11 other people were wounded by the three fanatics who reportedly declared they were avenging the prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam.
Nothing can justify attacks on people whose only offense lay in their use of words and drawings to mock religion and politics. Charlie Hebdo freely satirized all three Abrahamic religions, as well as politicians of various stripes. No source of power was immune from the cartoonists’ and writer’s pens — which is not to imply that had Islam been the magazine’s only target, the murders would have been less monstrous. And neither were the powerless, such as France’s Muslims, immune. (Freedom is not only for those with good taste. Its editorial policy, by the way, was not libertarian in its approach to foreign intervention.)
The satirists’ profession should not be dangerous, no matter how much its practitioners offend other people’s feelings. While the old saying “words can never hurt me” may be an overstatement, no physical reprisals for mere words and pictures can be tolerated. All is fair game. There should be no “fighting words” doctrine.
Bluntly stated, the staff of Charlie Hebdo is in no way responsible for what happened on Wednesday, as Anthony Fisher points out. (Amazingly, some commentators suggest that these lives could have been saved had the magazine abstained from satirizing Islam or had the French government censored it.) These people were innocent victims, full stop.
The coverage of the atrocities is another story. Most mainstream commentary has implied that violence against media figures is in a class by itself, incommensurable with any other kind of violence. No doubt part of the reason for this attitude is that many commentators see themselves as colleagues of the deceased. “Je suis Charlie! That could have been me,” they may think, though Reason’s Matt Welch reminds us that this certainly is not the case.
American journalists may also have an easier time identifying with Western middle-class victims of violence — the kind of people they are likely to know — than with, say, the faceless masses of poor people in the Muslim world who are daily subjected to violence from the U.S. and allied governments. Moreover, the victims of freelance violence often seem to count more than the victims of governments supposedly representing the “free world,” especially the U.S. government.
Thus the lamentations about violence that we hear in response to the Charlie Hebdo murders are conspicuously absent from the coverage of U.S. bombings, drone kills, and other violence inflicted on the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and who knows where else. Indeed, the violence in Paris, while inexcusable, cannot be fully comprehended if ripped from this context. We need to bear in mind that Islam was not left to make peace with modernity on its own terms as the other major religions managed to do — imperialist intervention prevented that. Cartoons alone may not have had the power to “radicalize” young Muslims in the West.
It’s not surprising that government officials engage in such selectivity. One has to laugh when President Obama or Secretary of State Kerry denounce violence whenever the perpetrators are not in the employ of the U.S. government. Where is the public and media indignation about the violence Obama and Kerry can directly do something about? The mass media are little better than cheerleaders for that mayhem, as they uncritically accept the government’s line that its aggression is both necessary and proper.
Another form of selectivity plagues the reactions to the Paris killings. Countless American officials and commentators have denounced these crimes as an attack on freedom of the press and speech, which they surely were. But the Obama administration hasn’t exactly been respectful of those freedoms, as its pursuit of a record number of whistleblowers and harassment of reporters demonstrate. According to Reporters Without Borders, the United States now ranks 46th in press freedom, a fall from 33rd. (The United Kingdom is 33rd and France is 39th.) RWB says:
Countries that pride themselves on being democracies and respecting the rule of law have not set an example, far from it. Freedom of information is too often sacrificed to an overly broad and abusive interpretation of national security needs, marking a disturbing retreat from democratic practices. Investigative journalism often suffers as a result.
This has been the case in the United States (46th), which fell 13 places, one of the most significant declines, amid increased efforts to track down whistleblowers and the sources of leaks. The trial and conviction of Private Bradley Manning and the pursuit of NSA analyst Edward Snowden were warnings to all those thinking of assisting in the disclosure of sensitive information that would clearly be in the public interest.
US journalists were stunned by the Department of Justice’s seizure of Associated Press phone records without warning in order to identify the source of a CIA leak. It served as a reminder of the urgent need for a “shield law” to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources at the federal level. The revival of the legislative process is little consolation for James Risen of The New York Times, who is subject to a court order to testify against a former CIA employee accused of leaking classified information. And less still for Barrett Brown, a young freelance journalist facing 105 years in prison in connection with the posting of information that hackers obtained from Stratfor, a private intelligence company with close ties to the federal government.
And let’s not forget campus speech codes and hate-speech laws, which are supported by many of the same people who today say, “Je suis Charlie.”
So yes, we should mourn the deaths of Stephane Charbonnier (Charb), Jean Cabut (Cabu), Georges Wolinski, Bernard Verlhac (Tignous), Bernard Maris, Philippe Honoré, Michel Renaud (a former journalist who happened to be visiting the office), Mustapha Ourrad, Elsa Cayat, Frederic Boisseau, and police officers Franck Brinsolaro and Ahmed Merabet (a Muslim, incidentally). And we should rise in opposition to these attacks on freedom of the press and speech. But we should mourn the victims of all aggression and oppose all infringements on freedom, including the aggression and infringements committed by the most powerful government on earth.
Finally, it ought to go without saying that the victims would be dishonored if their murders became an excuse to further restrict civil liberties, subject Muslims to bigotry and harassment, or justify more war against Muslim societies.
If any of those things happen, the fanatics will have won.