It’s a question of civilization versus barbarism. Earlier today armed gunmen burst into the Paris offices of a small satire magazine and murdered twelve people in cold blood. Among the victims were cartoonists and journalists employed by Charlie Hebdo, a magazine with a long history of skewering a wide range of targets, including French politicians, the Catholic Church, and Israel as well as Muslims and Arabs.
The killers were Islamacist terrorists with a two-fold mission, to avenge the hurt pride of fundamentalist Muslims unable to bear a bit of mockery, and to strike fear into the hearts of those of us who believe in the values of free speech and the right to criticize, even lampoon, ideas and beliefs that we or others subscribe to.
We have been here before, too many times. Since 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa ordering Muslims to kill British author Salman Rushdie, fundamentalist Muslims have repeatedly made deadly threats and carried out acts of appalling violence against anyone they deem to have insulted Islam.
In 2005 deadly riots and assassinations followed a Danish magazine’s publication of cartoons portraying Mohamed, the prophet of Islam. Last year in Pakistan, a Christian couple in were burned alive for purportedly desecrating the Koran. And in Syria and Iraq, ISIS fighters wage their holy war by executing those they deem infidels.
And in 2011, the offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed after the magazine ran a series of cartoons featuring Mohamed. The editors courageously marched on, ridiculing popes and presidents, Christians and Muslims, showing the world they would not be silenced, even as the politically correct crowd urged them to just shut up, at least where Islam was concerned.
Now, most people don’t enjoy being criticized, much less mocked. Mockery can be more than just cheap laughs, it sometimes has the power to wound deeply and offend deeply held beliefs. And it can be camouflage for bigotry and prejudice. But there are many possible responses other than murderous rage and indiscriminate blood-letting.
Gerald Ford was a star football player and graduate of Yale Law School, but that didn’t stop Saturday Night Live from portraying the President as a bumbler who couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Ford cheerfully agreed to appear in a cameo on SNL broadcast from the White House.
Of course, when religious beliefs are involved, such sunny reactions can be more difficult. When the movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released, some saw it as an impious satire of the life of Jesus Christ. And so offended believers picketed theatres, and Mervyn Stockwood, an Anglican bishop, went on BBC to debate John Cleese about the propriety and decency of the film.
So the best solution to speech we find offensive is more speech. We can express our indignation, and explain why we are right to be offended. Doing so forces all parties to examine their beliefs, and their consciences. And if all people are free to speak, none can complain that they haven’t at least had a hearing.
The United States has a special reverence for free speech, having enshrined it in the First Amendment to our Constitution in 1789. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes succinctly explained why free speech is so important to a free society. “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”
History has shown that, sooner or later, good ideas prevail over bad ones, truth wins out over falsehoods. To suppress certain kinds of speech would be to throw a monkey wrench into the greatest engine of progress, free thought, open debate, and unfettered expression. And these are the essential elements of liberty, the greatest blessing possible for free people.
A reasonable person can describe Charlie Hebdo’s satires as vulgar and in poor taste, even mean spirited. For some, that’s an exceptionally disagreeable part of living in a free society. But to let the most thin-skinned and easily offended dictate the boundaries of free speech is to take the first step to deprive ourselves of our precious liberty and freedom of thought.
These are the stakes. The murder spree in Paris is a savage assault upon the very foundations of our civilization. We should mourn the victims of this outrage, but we must also redouble our resolve not to be cowed by barbarians and their primitive values.