The sheer volume of atrocities these days prevents us from responding to each one. The day before Wednesday's attack, a Colorado office of the N.A.A.C.P. (national African-American rights organization) was bombed, though without casualties in this case. The same day I read about the Paris attack I read in the same newspaper about an attack in Turkey that killed 31, as well as an attack in Yemen where 50 people died. Police officers are killed so frequently in these and other attacks that the risks they take daily are almost overlooked, as part of their job.
But these deaths were in Paris. Paris, like New York, is a city so familiar from movies, etc. that people all over the world feel like they know it. Moreover, I live in Europe. I’m not European and I’ve never lived in Paris, but I have indelible memories of that city. I’ve been young and in love in Paris; I’ve been middle-aged and drunk; I’ve been there with my partner and with my dad. I am closer to Paris, geographically, than I was to New York (or D. C. or Pennsylvania) on September 11, 2001.
Responding to September 11, the Paris newspaper Le Monde ran this leading editorial: “Nous sommes tous Américains” (We are all Americans). Despite the “freedom fries” nonsense that came later, on September 11 the U.S.A. remembered that France was its oldest ally—its ally from before it was even a country. France gave the U.S. the Statue of Liberty. Oh, and I’m a writer myself, and a satirical one (at least I try to be). There are lots of reasons for me to take the attacks in France personally.
After the initial shock of the news, reports came in that the killers were Islamist terrorists. Charlie Hebdo had published lots of provocative cartoons by the four artists killed, including some making fun of Islam. I thought of Private Eye, a British satirical magazine, whose cover a week or two ago had shown a mock nativity scene, with the characters’ speech bubbles referencing various things going on in British society. (For the record, I liked this satire and didn’t think it was truly insulting Christ or Christians at all, but by definition satire doesn’t make everybody laugh.)
The not-funny thing is that Britain outlaws words or writing if the intent is to stir up religious hatred (among other things). That’s right—the U.K. actually does not have freedom of the press. That doesn’t mean the law is applied, at least not to everyone. It is more the chilling effect of the law—self-censorship. I cannot imagine some of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons being published in this country, which also has a significant Muslim minority, although not as large as the one in France.
Let's be clear that freedom of expression has been under attack by more than Islamists lately. Remember the movie The Interview, about North Korea, and the flap about Sony pulling that from movie theatres? Sony said they were canceling the film because theatres wouldn’t show it; the theatres said they were afraid of terrorist attacks. Can you imagine if there had been one?
Of course, the only terrorist attack on a U.S. movie theatre I can think of was in Colorado (again), when a crazed gunman went in and shot people and the film wasn't the target at all. U.S. shootings almost aren’t news anymore; we are in danger of regarding them as banal as a bad taste cartoon or a stupid Seth Rogen movie. One of the many brilliant cartoons drawn in response to the Paris killings was one of a gun captioned, “This is not a religion.” In the U.S., it needs to not be. The much-to-be-regretted paramilitarization of police there is because they are in an arms race with the civilian population.
Increased force is always justified by appealing to our fear. The phrase “an attack on freedom ” is used to justify everything our countries (including the U.S.A. and France) do that leads to civilian deaths in other countries, no matter how specious the reasoning. We can be forgiven for being cynical about this phrase.
But this really was an attack on freedom. This is a challenge to decide what kind of society we are and want to be. Are we as committed as we ought to be to freedom? Because freedom means religion has to compete in the marketplace of ideas—like any other idea. Religion has to win by convincing people, not by making them afraid. Otherwise, we might as well be North Korea, where there is only one idea.
To imagine that these terrorists killed artists for drawing cartoons is to miss the point. No doubt some of them are offensive to Muslims (and were designed to be), but for terrorists, that is a pretext for attack. Would we be safe from terrorism if only we didn’t publish such work? These terrorists’ goal is not just to make us afraid and therefore censor ourselves; it is to provoke and exacerbate an “us vs. them” conflict.
In their view of the world, there is dar al-Islam, the world of Islam (as they imagine it) and dar al-Harb, the world of war. Nothing else. There is no place for a Muslim to live in a society where Islam, as a religion, has to compete for adherents along with every other religion. There is no place for a Muslim who disagrees with and is offended by expressions, but doesn’t call for their suppression, let alone kill over them. Charlie Hebdo frequently offended Catholics who felt their faith was being mocked; the editorial director, Stéphane Charbonnier (Charb), said the goal was to lampoon Islam until it was as banal as Catholicism.
In the terrorists’ vision, who is squeezed out of the picture? Muslims, of course. Muslims who can practice their religion in the same way Christians can practice ours in a free society: by choice, not by forcing it on others. Putting up with what is sometimes very insulting rhetoric about their religion, because that is part of the give and take in our civilization. These terrorists would like nothing better than for our governments to crack down even harder on our personal liberties, to go to even more extreme excesses in the treatment of prisoners, to launch even more military operations in even more countries, so that there is no longer any way to be a Muslim except to be at war with the West. There is certainly no room in their world for Muslims like the one they gunned down outside Charlie Hebdo's offices on Wednesday. Another police officer, named Ahmed Merabet. A police officer who, like his colleague, died defending a freedom that includes the freedom to insult his religion.
Another of the many wonderful drawings to emerge in recent days showed symbols of people on the left side: the familiar male and female symbols from bathroom doors, the disabled symbol, males holding hands with males and females with females. On the right side were symbols of various religions and ideologies, including reprehensible ones like Nazism. The caption was: People have rights. Ideas do not have rights.
This is crucial. Your idea, your belief, has to compete in a world of other ideas and there is (or should be) no “protecting” it from the reasoning of other people. It may be sacred to you, but you, your precious human life, should be sacred to me. No idea, belief, expression is a capital offense. France, and most other of what used to be called “civilized” countries, did away with the death penalty a long time ago.
If everything is subject to satire, is nothing sacred? Yes. Freedom of speech, of the press, yes of religion too—of my religion and your religion and you who doesn’t have a religion. Absolutely, freedom is sacred.
To paraphrase Charb, who died for his blasphemy: If your God needs your protection from a cartoon (or other work of art), you don’t have a big enough God.