A letter writer to the Wall Street Journal wondered if the provocative cartoons in Charlie Hebdo were the American equivalent of “shouting fire in a crowded theater,” and whether the so-called journalists would have been better off desisting from antagonizing the wrong sorts of people. Before noting the fecklessness of her suggestion, it is always amusing when people misquote Justice Brandeis in Schenck v. United States (1919). Brandeis actually stated that the First Amendment does not protect “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater,” not merely “shouting fire.” What if the theater, or the world, is on fire? Shouldn’t one then scream “fire” to all assembled and to the heavens?
The writer’s sentiment is drawn directly from the appeasement playbook and never works, but contrast that with the brash but brave declaration of one of the murder victims, the magazine’s former editor, who said two years ago, when he was first pressured by Muslim extremists, that he would “prefer to die on my feet than live on my knees.” (DISCLAIMER! Most Muslims are not extremists or terrorists! I am referring to those who are and their supporters.) It is fairly certain that even in his bravado, and in his worst nightmares, he never anticipated that a massacre such as the one that occurred could ever be perpetrated by fellow human beings on this planet.
But it can. It has too many times in the past, as it will recur – G-d forbid – in the future. The Paris rally that attracted every world leader who recognizes the danger of Islamic terror (and thus not the American President) demonstrated a temporary resolve but the book is open. The dispute over the presence of Israel’s PM Netanyahu and the subsequent invitation to the PA’s president-for-life Mahmoud Abbas (for balance, of course) does not bode well for the future. Abbas?? If Yasser Arafat was the father of international terror, Abbas was its godfather, Arafat’s right hand who was responsible for bankrolling the PLO’s reign of terror and today presides over the PA’s outsourced terror. Abbas?!
That invitation simply means that the countries gathered want to keep Islamic terror outside their borders but are not completely troubled by the terror that persists in Israel. As long as only the canary in the coal mine suffers, those outside the mine can continue to preach caution and restraint to the canary. But it is the same enemy in different guises, and that has not yet penetrated the international consciousness notwithstanding Netanyahu’s repeated efforts at making the equation. Those leaders may yet learn that the methods by which Israel fights terror – and for which Israel has been routinely and hypocritically vilified – are the methods they themselves will deploy in the war against terror – if not even harsher methods and if they choose to wage such a war.
It is interesting that the letter writer’s point of view was embraced in the recent past by both France’s Prime Minister and by the White House, who decried the offense to Muslim sensibilities by the magazine’s constant mockery of Islam. Both governments conceded the right of free speech but urged its judicious and more sensitive use (unlike the auteur of the Mohammed video that was falsely claimed to be the pretext for the Benghazi attack and who now languishes in an American prison). Indeed, although it was unintended, one facet of the writer’s suggestion resonated with me but for a different reason.
Obviously, nothing – NOTHING – justifies the brutal, evil, malicious, hideous attacks in France. Nothing the magazine published deserved death. We need to create a new vocabulary to describe the depths of evil to which the world is now witness, and across the globe, and almost daily. It is always the same; only the venue changes.
Nevertheless, before we all become Charlie, it is worthwhile to state that these were victims, innocent victims whose deaths were repugnant and worthy of condemnation and international protest and action. But we should be able to retain that conclusion and still reflect on another aspect of Western life.
It is not as if Charlie Hebdo was researching cures for cancer or finding new ways to relieve hunger. It is a media organ dedicated to mockery, scorn (especially of religion), and the slaughtering of both sacred cows and the notion of the sacred altogether. The media reports that it is irreverent, vulgar, juvenile and rude, and designed to offend. That business model – and its allure – are worth pondering.
It has become fashionable in liberal societies to mock religion, if only to justify to themselves that there is no objective morality, no real right and wrong, and no ideal lifestyle. Religion – of any sort – places restrictions on the pursuit of one’s fantasies and usually imposes some moral code that guides the adherent’s personal and public behavior. It thereby cuts against the grain of modern life and is a tough sell in the Western world. In some parts of the world – France, in particular, the disdain for organized religion is several centuries old.
But note the self-imposed limitations on publications such as Charlie and its imitators (even in America): would they ever direct their comedy against liberal shibboleths such as abortion rights activists or homosexuals? If they did, they would be construed as purveyors of hate, not satire, and even if they meant what they wrote as satire. The scoffers of religion are considered avant garde and generally lionized by the liberal media. I suppose the reaction depends on whose garde is being gored.
We should be able to mourn their deaths and feel outrage, horror and revulsion at their murder without simultaneously sanctifying or glorifying the practices that, despicably, inspired the monsters that murdered them. Death does not retroactively purify deeds that are impure, even when that death is wholly undeserved. Just because one dies for his beliefs does not mean that those beliefs are admirable; memo to Muslim terrorists.
What should be a civilized person’s understanding of the cherished freedom of speech? There are many free speech absolutists who at least embrace consistency but not always decency and common sense. Certainly, there are restrictions on free speech that we all recognize – libel, obscenity (certainly in public), incitement; many European countries ban the use of Nazi imagery or Holocaust denial. Those are all restrictions on free speech that are plausible and justifiable. On the other side of the coin, as noted here several times, there are places in the US today (college campuses in particular) where certain points of view are denied expression in public or in the classroom, where speakers – right-wing, pro-Israel, Christian, pro-traditional morality and others are not allowed to speak. Their lectures are not just boycotted by protesters – that would be civilized – but disrupted. They are shouted down and their audiences are deprived of the right to hear them. This has gone on for almost thirty years. The tactics of those protesters differ in degree, but not really in kind, from those who attempted in Paris – and will fail across the globe – to suppress the free speech of free people, even scoffers.
How do we censor offensive speech? The way it is done in America by civilized people – through social sanction. It is disgraceful to mock the cherished and valued beliefs that people profess, and decent people choose to disassociate themselves from those who do. (It isn’t hard to distinguish between acts or statements that are objectively repugnant – using icons in lewd and lascivious ways, as has been done in the United States with Christian figures – and mere depictions – such as the drawings of Mohammed – that are forbidden under Islamic law does not bind Westerners and is wrong if meant to ridicule or to be coarse but should never be illegal. Nor is it reasonable to expect a secular textbook to remove drawings of pigs or dogs so as not to offend children, as Oxford Press has recently done. Nonetheless, an Israeli teen was sent to prison several years ago for distributing a crude Mohammed poster.)
Jewish law discusses extensively the parameters of permissible and impermissible forms of speech, and pious Jews study and try to implement those laws. Satire has its place, but not mean-spirited mockery, derision, the pervasive celebrity gossip that dominates too many people’s waking moments, the public shaming of people, etc. Charlie Hebdo should have the right to publish whatever it wants, but I don’t see how its publication makes the world a better place.
But unlike the letter-writer who admonished the victims for unwittingly provoking their own deaths, from which I strongly dissent, abstaining from ridiculing religions should come from elementary decency, not from fear. There are just certain things that decent people don’t do – in public or in private – because they wish to define themselves and be perceived by others as decent people.
Granted, a call for respect rings hollow now, and Muslims are not sympathetic figures for obvious reasons – the violence, and less obvious ones. Radical Muslims have attacked holy symbols of many religions across the globe – Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and even Sunni or Shi’a shrines, depending on the type of radical doing the damage. Some Muslim writers routinely belittle other religions, and even the Arab press in parts of the Middle East habitually calls Jews the “descendants of apes and pigs.” It is a little duplicitous, to say the least, for the murderers to claim they are “avenging” alleged insults to the revered figures when they incessantly hurl invective at all other religions. But, despite the agonizing search for motives, terrorists commit their heinous deeds for no reason and every reason. There are very few people in the world who would take a human life because of such an insult, and very few who would want to give up their own life in doing so. The obsession over motive – “what X or Y must have done to deserve it” – is an empty and futile pursuit and ultimately demeaning to all victims of terror.
That is the reality of radical Islamic terror and the malady for which civilized Muslims must find a cure. It is important to add – and especially because of the sensitivity of the sensitive – that a French Muslim police officer was murdered in cold blood outside the Charlie Hebdo offices, reinforcing the sense that those bent on murder and mayhem will commit murder and mayhem regardless of the ethnicity of the victims. And to be eternally honored for the good he did is Lassana Bathily, a Muslim employee at the kosher market who hid several Jews in the freezer and quite possibly saved their lives.
Those who claim to be “Charlie” would do well to use their freedom of speech to elevate and not degrade, to fight evil rather than accommodate it, and to become more fearless and not more fearful. As always, the way nations treat Israel in its current predicament and struggle against terror will go a long way to ascertaining their true position on Arab terror – a global scourge to be fought or a local inflammation best dealt with by keeping it outside their own borders.
It would be a better world if people actually pursued goodness rather than fame or notoriety. The innocent writers and cartoonists who were cruelly gunned down will not soon be forgotten, and rightly so. We should also bear in mind that just because something is legal does not mean it should be pursued. Man has a higher calling that emanates from the “image of G-d” that gives him life, and gives that life meaning.