Five years ago today, two French Islamists forced their way into the Paris editorial offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and began shooting. The journal’s offices had been moved to an unmarked building after they were hit by a 2011 firebombing in response to the publication of a satirical cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed. The shooters managed to kill twelve people. A related attack soon followed in a kosher supermarket, where four Jews were murdered by a friend of the shooters.
Even today, the paper’s editor, who’s published offensive caricatures of popes and rabbis, lives under police protection for the crime of slandering Mohammed. Charlie Hebdo, whose circulation has dropped precipitously after an initial post-attack spike, is an ill-mannered slayer of sacred cows of a kind that, sadly, doesn’t exist in the United States. The only American enterprise I can think of that has a comparable openness to skewering all faiths is South Park, but even its excellent brand of satire is staid by comparison.
For a brief moment after attack, the free world rallied around Charlie Hebdo. “Je suis Charlie” became a global rallying cry. The massive march through the streets of Paris that followed included virtually every major world leader, including those hypocrites who are happy to clamp down on free expression in their own nations. One leader conspicuously, and embarrassingly, absent from the proceedings was the president of the United States, Barack Obama. He sent the U.S. ambassador to France instead.
It’s worth remembering some of the Left’s passive-aggressive victim-blaming after the second attack. “Shooting people is wrong,” wrote The Daily Beast’s Arthur Chu, a guy who puts quotation marks around “free speech” when the thoughts being expressed offend his sensibilities. But, he warned, do not martyr the “trolling” satirists of Charlie Hebdo, and do not act in a way that “valorizes free speech for its own sake.” The latter is an argument we hear all the time today.
Taking a slightly different tack than Chu, Max Fisher at Vox lamented that these white French people were punching down at powerless brown people. Fisher now works at the New York Times, a publication that has no compunction punching down when it comes to American Christians. If an anti-abortion extremist shot up a major newspaper, would anyone argue that “the shooting was terrible, but we really should start thinking about pulling our rhetorical punches when it comes Evangelical conservatives or pro-lifers?” Doubtful.
Criticism of Islam is a completely legitimate form of political speech, as is criticism of Catholicism and Mormonism and Judaism and Scientology, all of which Charlie Hebdo has also satirized. We have no responsibility to “respect” anyone’s ideas about the world, or the afterworld, nor do we have any right to expect to live in a world free of offense. The argument that a subset of people — in this case Muslims — should be afforded special protections from open discourse is itself a bigoted way of saying you don’t believe Muslims can live peacefully in the free world.
Then again, over the past five years the United States has probably been irreparably infected by this authoritarian impulse to dictate rhetorical etiquette and appropriate political speech. The idea of passing hate-speech laws, long a norm in Europe — Emmanuel Macron recently tried to push through a law governing social-media speech — has been aggressively normalized in the United States over that span.
It’s not just brittle Millennials who believe speech is tantamount to violence. Many polls show an increasing openness to hate-speech laws in the United States. We now have high-profile television personalities with (highly suspect) law degrees claiming that “hate speech is excluded from protection” under the First Amendment. We have research professors from the American Bar Foundation arguing that citizens should be barred from saying offensive words in the public square. It wasn’t long ago that Richard Stengel, a former Time managing editor, was arguing in the flagship newspaper of the nation’s capital that the government should begin policing speech.
“Even the most sophisticated Arab diplomats that I dealt with did not understand why the First Amendment allows someone to burn a Koran,” Stengel recollected. Even — even! — the most sophisticated Arab diplomats are working for theocratic and/or authoritarian states that not only fail to protect basic civil liberties but also occasionally behead, hang, and flog people for crimes against the Koran. Pardon me, but I’m not surprised they don’t get it. What Stengel should have told his sophisticated Arab friends is that free speech is a neutral principle, and that burning a Koran, like burning an American flag, is a political statement. The First Amendment doesn’t “let” us do those things; it protects our inherent right to free expression, including expression condemning Koran-burners and flag-burners, without prejudice.
Then again, Stengel gives away the game when he asserts that open discourse is responsible for allowing Moscow “to slip its destructive ideas into our media ecosystem.” I realize he’s distressed about Donald Trump’s presidency, but taking to the pages of the Washington Post to argue that United States should function more like Putin’s Russia is a weird way to show it.
In any event, the trial of the terrorists who help facilitate the Charlie Hebdo massacre began this week. Only five of the 24 jihadists who helped plan the attack will be appearing in court. The other 19 suspects, most of them dead, had long ago left to fight in Iraq and Syria with ISIS. They were probably really mad about the tone of French political cartoons.
In the meantime, Charlie Hebdo should remind us that giving a bunch of religious extremists or government bureaucrats veto power over our speech is a terrible idea. It does nothing to make us safer. It only makes us less free.