Politics & Policy

The Rush to Blame the Victims in the Charlie Hebdo Massacre

Signs at a vigil outside the French embassy in Berlin. (Carsten Koall/Getty)
More than a few journalists and politicians seem to think they had it coming.

Early in the hit musical Chicago, the “six merry murderesses of Cook County Jail,” by way of explaining why they offed their various lovers, state simply, “He had it coming.”

According to several commentators, Charlie Hebdo had it coming, too.

A brief history: When it came to satirizing Islam, the Paris humor magazine — motto: Journal irresponsable — had been flustering the fainthearted for a decade. In solidarity with Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, in 2006, despite violent protests across the globe, Charlie Hebdo reprinted twelve editorial cartoons depicting the Prophet of Islam under the title, “Mohammed Overwhelmed by Fundamentalists.”

A bold blow for freedom of expression? Not according to then-president Jacques Chirac, who called the decision an “overt provocation.”

Unbowed, in November 2011, the magazine printed an issue “guest-edited” by Mohammed: “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!” the cover warned. That day, Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters were firebombed.

Bruce Crumley, writing at Time, found it “hard to have sympathy” for the magazine:

Not only are [its] Islamophobic antics futile and childish, but they also openly beg for the very violent responses from extremists their authors claim to proudly defy in the name of common good.

Ten months later, the magazine published an issue depicting, on the cover, an Orthodox Jewish man pushing a Muslim man in a wheelchair to parody the 2011 French film, The Intouchables, about two men, white and black, who strike up an unlikely friendship, with, inside, mock advertisements (including one of a genital-bearing Prophet). Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault criticized the publication, as did foreign minister Laurent Fabius, who called the decision “pour[ing] oil on the fire.” Sud-Ouest, a daily newspaper, said Charlie Hebdo was “playing with fire,” while Le Figaro decried the images as “silly provocations.”

Across the Atlantic, top American officials mirrored those sentiments: “We have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. He of course added, “It is not in any way justification for violence.”

Now, two years later, a trio of gunmen opened fire on a Charlie Hebdo editorial meeting, killing ten journalists (including four of France’s best-known cartoonists) and two police officers, and at the Financial Times Tony Barber writes:

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.

Charlie Hebdo had it coming. They played with fire, they got burned.

Not coincidentally, though, an entirely different line of moral reasoning applies to other sorts of violence.

Consider rape. Self-defense classes, roofie-detecting nail polish, even anti-rape-culture rallies are branded as “victim blaming” because they supposedly imply that a woman can bear some moral culpability for her own victimization.

But when it comes to Islamic terror attacks, it seems that victim-blaming is entirely permissible. Sure, the attackers were “hate-filled.” But wasn’t that hate — and the attackers’ murderous decision — driven by racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, “Islamophobic antics”?

That is the sort of reasoning that animates Crumley and Barber and even President Obama, who lectured the United Nations in 2012 that “the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.” And it is the reason why the caveat that they inevitably tack onto their milquetoast defenses of free expression (“Let me be clear: This is not in any way a justification of violence . . .”) is so much nonsense.

They “question the judgment” of publishing potentially provocative content not because they are concerned for the safety of its authors (at least, not mainly), or because the material is “in bad taste” (an empty phrase nowadays), but precisely because they think the material is wrong. The now late Stéphane Charbonnier and his staff were at best “baiting” potential attackers, and at worst “slandering” them, and that is wrong, and so they are at least partially responsible for the consequences. Q.E.D.

The notion that Charlie Hebdo’s mockery, rather than the cold-blooded murder of its staff, ought to be the target of one’s moral censure is its own sort of insanity. But more to the point, the view propagated by Crumley et al. necessarily curtails the freedom of “free speech.” “Free speech” is grounded on the general agreement that I can say what I want (short of incitement), even if you think it is incorrect or immoral, provided I allow you to do the same, and Western societies have bought into that, at least to some degree, since the time of Hobbes, because it was generally thought to be better than the alternative: a society founded on the fragile, hard-to-come-by consensus on the highest and most complex questions — religion, for instance. The “Islamic State” is a prime example of such a scheme.  Liberal societies are those that ceased trying to come to a politically enforceable consensus on metaphysical questions, preferring to tolerate the kookiness of Westboro Baptists if it prevented the cruelty of witch hunts. Better a society of unending offense than unending war.

In the case of attacks like the one on Charlie Hebdo, upholding that principle would require saying that the moral value of a magazine’s publication is not the government’s concern. It has the right to publish what might offend, plain and simple, and the government will uphold that. As for those who would react violently — who would offend against the pact upholding free speech — they, and they alone, are responsible for their actions.

But Western governments are increasingly unwilling to defend this principle, convinced that they can negotiate away, to the satisfaction of their enemies, the offending elements. What they do not realize is that, by doing so, they are negotiating away, too, the open, liberal society that has prevailed for three centuries, and that has, better than any arrangement of persons yet conceived, best assured the security and prosperity of persons.

If it does not remain so, there will be no one to blame but ourselves.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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