First, step back and realize how totally insane the events in Paris have become. Take a deep breath and exit Tweetdeck. Close your Facebook tab on Chrome. Now wander over to the window and look outside. Notice how unless you’re in Paris, nothing has changed. Anything still sitting with you? The frustration and anger you feel toward someone thousands of miles away murdering a couple of satirical cartoonists is justified. Don’t feel anything? No worries, I’m not going to hound you about it.
The reactions to the Charlie Hebdo shooting, a despicable crime perpetrated directly against the values of the west, has been hashed out so many ways in the news and on social media that the event itself, religious zealots executing a staff of comedians and going on a shooting rampage in Paris, has almost disappeared. The response, and the response to the response, and the response to that, has gotten us all lost in a maelstrom of commentary, counter-commentary, and counter-counter-commentary, and it hasn’t even been a week.
So, permit me to toss in a few thoughts that might help pull the hurricane back a bit.
Charlie Hebdo is a satirical newspaper that is fully trying to provoke its audience. Let’s take this as given. It isn’t “The Daily Show” of France, and it isn’t “Mad Magazine,” it occupies a social space somewhere near The Onion in the US, but more like if The Onion wanted to directly attack rather than just be humorous. It’s important to understand because the newspaper prints things all the time, targeting other people’s “sacred cows” and doesn’t get shot up. The difference this time is that they printed a picture of the prophet. To some people who are fanatical enough, and disrespectful enough of Western values, this is unacceptable. Charlie Hebdo provoked these people into attacking back, with bullets.
This is very significant and cuts straight to the heart of the conflict between The West and Islam. The events pry open a silent wound in a way that the United States doesn’t, and potentially can’t, yet realize.
The discussion throughout traditional and social media has focused around whether the image was in good or bad taste, whether or not someone should expect repercussions for their actions, and what “free speech” really means.
Let me be extremely clear: Free speech, and the right to free speech, is the defining and foundational concept in western democratic tradition. The expectation to not only publish and express your thoughts and ideas but to also have the reasonable expectation that none of that expression will lead to your death is what has brought the west out of the dark ages. Quite simply, nothing could be more sacred. And this is why Charlie Hebdo was attacked. Our western, sacred right to say what we want how we want runs directly against their belief that the prophet is sacred, and above any and all criticism or depiction. That’s it.
The two values that are fundamentally at odds are these. So the question “did Charlie Hebdo want to start a war?” is ludicrous, the war was already going on. The fact is that there are two competing and irreconcilable ways of life at odds here: one that holds secular, enlightenment values as priority, and one that does not, and is in fact threatened by them. Are these gunmen terrorists? Yes. Are they muslims? Yes. Any attempt to remove that quality of their identity would be denial at best and perpetrating The Real Scotsman fallacy at worst.
These terrorist extremists have no regard for any of the kind of cultural decorum that is necessary in a civilized western democracy. The fact is they would dismantle the very same liberal institutions that have allowed them to emigrate to the west in the first place (http://youtu.be/UC2VQjSgpso).
It’s true, not all Muslims are terrorists, but some are, and these two perpetrators definitely were. It’s not dissimilar from claiming that not all American southerners were racists in 1965. Some were, and the ones who attacked blacks marching from Selma to Montgomery definitely were. Charlie Hebdo’s act, to print a provocative image of radical Islam’s most sacred thing was to expose this truth, and it worked. In the same fashion, a black march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama was as infuriating to cultural values that were shared in the south as printing an image of Mohammad is to radical muslims living in Paris now. And in the same way the two acts have exposed to the world the seething hatred that is directly affronted by the practice of more civilized values.
America can ONLY be a place where people of different skin colors are equally respected or it can’t be, and our western nations can ONLY be places where free speech is respected or it isn’t. A proper response to being offended to the printing of the image of Mohammed would have been a well reasoned, well written editorial appearing in Le Monde addressing the muslim community’s reception of the article. A discussion, a reasonable, democratic discussion asking to be a respected members of the larger French community would have been perfectly appropriate. A discussion of values. This is at least what southern preachers afforded Dr. King when he was in prison.
Perhaps, as tragic as the Charlie Hebdo shooting was, it may serve as a cultural space to begin a productive dialogue on what to do when our liberal values run up against values that fundamentally conflict with them. The truth is, as much as bleeding heart liberals such as myself like to blame the west first, this is an instance that calls for defense, and a heavy hand. But first, a discussion, a real one that doesn’t take place only on CNN and social media.