Charlie Hebdo, Terrorism, and the Cost of Free Speech

Charlie Hebdo, Terrorism, and the Cost of Free Speech

When we hear of a shooting or bombing, our first thoughts are usually (1) sadness and compassion for the victims, (2) wondering who did it and why, and (3) asking - could it happen here? To me? Not always in that order. So it was when I heard that 13 people, most of them staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, had been shot on January 7th.

The answer to number 3 is, ‘yes, of course it could,’ though as the likelihood of an American being killed by a domestic terrorist attack in a given year has been estimated at less than 1 in 3,000,000, it should be it low on your list of things to worry about.

Related: After Charlie Hebdo There’s One Good Way Forward

Finding an answer to question number two has spawned a massive industry of security professionals, analysts, and commentators since 9/11. A persuasive view is that terrorism is not a problem like Nazism or Communism that can be simply defeated by purposeful action. We can’t take the capital city of Terror and call it a day, or combine various forms of pressure over many years until the Terror-town Wall is pulled down by fed-up citizens.

Terrorism is more like repeated flooding caused by an underlying period of inclement weather; it can be mitigated, fought, and beaten back, but outbreaks can’t be exactly predicted and ultimately it must be endured, like Britain endured the IRA, Italy the Red Brigades, Spain ETA, and so on and on.

Literate French enjoy seeing authority figures mocked, in publications like the satirical Le Canard enchaîné or Charlie Hebdo, which publishes on the edge of the taste spectrum and doesn’t spare anyone. The cover of a recent issue on gay marriage, for example, had a cartoon showing ‘the son’ apparently sodomizing ‘the father’ and in turn being serviced by ‘the Holy Ghost.’

Though many Americans are developing a taste for more cutting satire through the Onion, the Daily Show, and the like, that goes well beyond what is socially acceptable (or will sell) on our own newsstands. But degree is not the point – freedom of speech is absolute, with very few exceptions (calling “fire” in a crowded theater is the classic, or advocating criminal acts). Either you have it, or you don’t, and only the market decides how popular it is.

Related: Paris Makes Charlie Hebdo ‘Honorary Citizen’

Like America, France has a long tradition of defending free speech. Though Voltaire never actually said the quote often attributed to him, ‘I hate what you say but I defend to the death your right to say it,’ when commenting on a work by a fellow writer, he certainly believed in freedom of expression. However, when Voltaire wrote his play Mahomet in the 18th century, a work that was controversial even then, France wasn’t home to five million Muslims.

The ongoing process of integrating this population into French society has created friction and youth alienation, sometimes manifest in violence and crime. Yet one should not confuse these wider challenges with terrorism, which is still comparatively rare. Even if the vast majority of France’s Muslims reject violence, a few individuals in any large population, radicalized in complex but individual ways, will sometimes be willing to commit ideologically-inspired terrorism.

Unlike most of America’s mass killers (in Aurora or Sandy Hook, for example), some may claim to act in the name of a faith or a name-brand terror group like ISIS or al-Qaeda, which in turn will be glad to take credit, however minimal their influence on planning and execution. The Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly likely represented French Muslims about as much as Terry Jones, the provocateur Florida preacher, or the Westboro Baptist Church represent American Christians: Only a few would consider them confessionals, much less agree with their views.

Related: al-Qaeda Claims French Attack, Derides Paris Rally

What Americans and French people have accepted for two centuries is the right of people to say objectionable things out loud and in print (and the ease of ignoring them). This certainly wasn’t always the case in the Christian-majority world. The Spanish Inquisition was pretty tough on free speech, and early America experimented with the Alien and Sedition acts. Perhaps the Islamic world today is going through a process of intellectual pluralism, akin to the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe (but hopefully less violent) that will eventually result in a greater tolerance for free expression, debate, and even apostasy. Perhaps not.

After his paper was bombed in 2012, Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, told Le Monde that he had no spouse, children, or debts, and he’d rather die standing up than live on his knees. Also a line from the French-language version of Braveheart, it sounds better, and even rhymes, in French. His courage in the face of threats is inspiring, as is the recent massive popular support in France and abroad for Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish, regardless of our individual views on what they specifically write or draw.

But when its print run returns from this week’s 3 million to the normal 60,000 or so, there will be no escaping the fact that for Charlie Hebdo and other writers and publishers, as well as the states that protect them, the price of free speech has just gone up again.

Simon Hankinson has lived in Europe, South Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Islands is currently an MA candidate in International Security Affairs. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the State Department or the U.S. Government.

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