The images and sounds are not soon forgotten. Masked men emerging from a car, a lone policeman, already wounded, pleading for his life, as a gunman runs up to him and abruptly ends the policeman's life : sporadic gunfire is heard. Muffled noises fly up to the rooftop. Confusion, chaos and death in the afternoon. All because of some cartoons.
In the time after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, there have been world wide words of condemnation, mass rallies and demonstrations, endless commentaries from TV talking heads who make their living from calamity, and world leaders walking arm in arm down the Champs Elysee. Those who see this as an assault on free speech have had a field day.
That would be scanned.
Up until last week, I had not heard of Charlie Hebdo. I assume that you had not either. What I have learned about Charlie Hebdo since the massacre hasn't made me shed any tears. I have not posted "Je suis Charlie" on my facebook page, nor have I walked the streets in my town brandishing a pen over my head. There's just something not quite right with all the hand wringing and wailing over this.
To be clear, and to cut off any knee jerk criticism of what I've just written, let me say, in the strongest terms I can, that I deplore the violence on that day. No person deserves to be shot in the street or in an office building just because of cartoons. Just as I believe that no person deserves to be shot in a school, a shopping mall, a movie theatre, in their home, in a market, or any place else. I believe no person deserves to die in a rocket attack, a drone strike or from a home-made bomb placed in a public place by some deranged extremist.
So, now that I have made that declaration, a reader may be wondering why I haven't taken up the cause of Charlie Hebdo. The answer is because those at Charlie Hebdo, by constantly publishing those cartoons, were, in effect, taunting the extremists and daring them to so something. In other words, they were partially responsible for their own demise. Permit me to explain.
Those who have been claiming "Je suis Charlie" have done so in the name of free speech. They claim that the magazine had the right to publish what they wanted, no matter how satirical, because France, like all western countries, has a tradition of tolerating free speech as an expression of the democratic rights we all claim to enjoy. They claim that the attack was, therefore, not just an attack on the magazine, but on all of us.
They are only partially correct. Indeed, we have the right of free speech, just as we enjoy so many other rights in our society. But what "Je suis Charlie" conveniently neglects to consider is this: with rights comes responsibility. If a person or magazine or any other institution insists on exercising their rights, be it free speech or any other, they must take into account their responsibility to others in exercising that right. And they must recognize that, if they act or speak irresponsibly, there are consequences.
Let me once again state that I do not, nor ever will, claim that Charlie Hebdo "got what they deserved" or "got what was coming to them". No act of violence can ever be condoned.
But Charlie Hebdo had to have known that continuous satire, designed to inflame, irritate, taunt, ridicule and insult, would have consequences. Had Charlie Hebdo been content to make its point, do it once or twice, and leave it alone, the massacre may never have happened. We will never know for certain. But, we do know that they were warned constantly about reprisals and must have known that radicals and fanatics would try to get back at them. Yet, they continued to mock and give the middle finger. They continued to defy those who suggested that they tone down the rhetoric or stop using the images that were a red flag to others. They insisted that they had the right to express themselves. Some say that Charlie Hebdo was courageous. I say that they showed no responsibility with their right. I say that they were either stupid or arrogant with their apparent unassailability. I say that they were more tragic than inspiring. With their hubris came a terrible nemesis that is sad and not surprising.
One has to ask: what was the intent of Charlie Hebdo's campaign of satire? To educate? Educate whom? Most reasonable people understand the situation involving extremism. The only education available here was to those who enjoy the mockery and insult: Charlie Hebdo was providing them a shield for their mockery, the shield of free speech. So, what other purpose could there have been for the continuous mockery? To promote greater harmony or understanding among people? Hardly likely. To get people to laugh at themselves? Some people weren't laughing, obviously. Those who were laughing did so with derision and hurtful intent. Was it to sell magazines? No doubt about this. Or maybe the purpose was to deliberately provoke those who took offense. To degrade, dehumanize, insult and demonstrate hatred of a group of people. If this is true, the right to free speech seems more a sham, more of an excuse to bully and intimidate. The only surprise is that the retaliation took as long as it did.
Free speech as a defense for improper or inappropriate words or actions is a slippery slope. In our country, we have had examples of those who attempted to spread hatred, venom and suspicion against others, all under the banner of free speech. I urge you to google and research the names of Ernst Zundle and James Keegstra as examples. It is possible that Charlie Hebdo might fall under the same category as those infamous men.
Voltaire once famously said "I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Inspiring words, aren't they? And we should all follow the principal behind them. But missing from this is the notion that the person speaking the words of which Voltaire disapproved must exercise responsibility for those words. Otherwise, all bets are off.