The puckish French newspaper Charlie Hebdo was attacked by Islamic thugs on Wednesday, and the West’s reaction brought to mind the spirit of NATO: an attack on one is an attack on all. There was a hiatus in the usual Internet slashing as nearly everyone was united in a commitment to liberal values. The hash tag “#JeSuisCharlie” was devised to show solidarity with the murdered journalists.
The translation is “I am Charlie,” which seems both excessive and fitting. Excessive because even most of us who work in media are not Charlie Hebdo; we’ll never be mutilated by gunfire over something we write. And yet fitting because what Charlie’s assassins were trying to snuff out was a value we all hold dear: freedom of expression, even if that expression is deemed offensive.
That right, along with the rest of the classically liberal credo, is the West’s inheritance. And yet too often we’ve bartered it away in exchange for safety or sterility. The best way to remember the dead at Charlie Hebdo is not by affirming our rights with more Twitter slacktivism, but correcting those instances where we didn’t affirm our rights.
The media didn’t affirm our rights when a Danish newspaper printed cartoons mocking the prophet Mohammed. Those images ignited a firestorm of Muslim outrage that wrecked embassies and killed at least 200 people. Most American media outlets refused to reprint the images; a New York Times editor recently sniffed that he doesn’t publish material “deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities.” (Oh really?) The cravenness even seeped into book publishing, with Yale University Press censoring a book about the cartoons.
After the Charlie Hebdo murders, the American media should print the Danish cartoons.
Comedy Central didn’t affirm our rights when South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone made an episode depicting the prophet Mohammed. Though Parker and Stone are by far the most talented and influential satirists at that network (cool your jets, Jon Stewart fan girls), executives still insisted on censoring the scene. Stone later summed up Comedy Central’s attitude as “afraid of getting blown up.”
After the Charlie Hebdo murders, Comedy Central should air that South Park episode, sans censorship.
The government didn’t affirm our rights after a D-list movie called Innocence of Muslims that satirized Mohammed sent the Islamic world into a furor. The Obama administration, desperate to pin the September 11 Benghazi attacks on something other than al Qaeda, scapegoated the film and asked Google to remove it from YouTube. It was later removed anyways after a federal judge ruled that its producers had committed a comically specious infringement of copyright law, and its filmmaker, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, was later thrown in prison on an equally flimsy parole violation.
After the Charlie Hebdo murders, someone should find a way to distribute Nakoula’s movie.
In every one of these cases, the common denominator isn’t the Washington Post’s concern for “religious sensibilities,” but Matt Stone’s far more lucid formulation: they’re afraid of getting blown up. Already the AP, CNN, the New York Daily News, and the UK Telegraph are censoring the French cartoons that depict Mohammed. These outlets have given an effective content veto to Islamists so long as they’re willing to throw a tantrum. And tantrums they excel at.
So it should go without saying that after the Charlie Hebdo murders, the media should show the French cartoons.
This isn’t to encourage blasphemy—after the Charlie Hebdo murders, we should double down on protections for religion too. The right to free expression and the right to follow one’s conscience are inextricably linked. There’s too thick a line in our minds between imams demanding that secularists follow Islamic rules and secularists demanding that religious people follow “reasonable, 21st century secular rules.” Catholics should not be forced to provide contraception to work out a kink in some wonk’s policy blueprint. Secularism means pluralism, not progressivism.
Finally, after the Charlie Hebdo murders, movie companies should reconsider their capitulation to North Korea and show The Interview. There’s a big difference between not shouting fire in a crowded theater and sending away crowds from your theater because you’re afraid of a fire. Speaking of which, we should probably do away with that stupid Oliver Wendell Holmes metaphor anyhow. Those Philadelphia socialists were as much a threat to Woodrow Wilson as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is to Barack Obama.