The salient feature of the recent terrorist attack in Paris is its target: the media. The toll was much smaller than jihadist attacks in Madrid and London, and the operation was far less complex. But by going after a popular periodical, the attack sought to chill free expression, which is at the bedrock of western democracies.
French authorities are to be commended for vociferously championing free speech, and particularly for defending the especially puerile and inflammatory style of Charlie Hebdo. Charlie Hebdo is likewise to be lauded for fighting on, publishing yet another exquisitely offensive depiction of Mohammed just days after the attack. Indeed we are all indebted to the likes of Charlie Hebdo: if the protections of free speech extend to cover them, then the rest of us can be assured of ample space for our own exchanges of ideas.
Protection of free expression takes subtly (and not-so subtly) different forms in different western countries. In France, for example, you are free to show Jesus having anal sex with God and the Holy Spirit (as Charlie Hebdo did in a 2013 cover illustration) – but you can go to jail for denying that the Holocaust happened, and you can be fined for using the word software (e.g.) or other imported words in place of a French word. Most ironically, Charlie Hebdo’s predecessor, Hara-Kiri Hebdo, was banned by the French government in 1970 for making fun of Charles de Gaulle’s death. Concerning freedom of expression, more is more. The suggestion that political commentators should tread particularly lightly on religious beliefs is misguided. It is better to counsel citizens to be tolerant of different opinions – even those that are intended to offend.
Some have taken the occasion of this attack to point out the numerous flaws in French policies toward its growing Muslim population. The Kouachi brothers, after all, are not foreign nationals – they are Parisians, born and raised. This perhaps is the most frightening aspect of the attack – that it was not perpetrated by foreigners, as was 9/11, but by disaffected citizens, as was the Oklahoma City bombing.
While France should be more liberal in its policies toward Muslims, its failings should not be held up as a proximate cause of this unfortunate attack. Many citizens within France, the US, and practically every western country, have legitimate complaints about government practices, and the actions of private groups as well. They do not justify the murder of fellow citizens. France could surely deal with its Muslim minority with greater long-sightedness and sensitivity. But this observation does not lend an iota of legitimacy to last week’s attack.
We should take comfort in the fact that attacks such as these are exceedingly rare – even though they are relatively simple to carry out. (Two teenagers killed as many people in Columbine; a mentally disturbed 20 year-old killed twice as many in Sandy Hook; one intrepid Norwegian killed five times as many.) There is little a modern nation of 3, 60 or 300 million people can do to eliminate all such attacks; invariably, the price for a small amount of additional security is a lot of lost liberty.
In the fall and winter that followed Sept 11, 2001, about 30,000 Americans died of the flu – ten times the number that died on 9/11. We should be thankful that in the greater scheme of things, even the worst terrorist attack in history doesnt amount to a whole lot. The US reaction to 9/11, particularly its ill-considered invasion of Iraq, has had far more terrible and enduring consequences. We should bury our dead and mourn, but we should not let our hunger for justice or security erode our most precious liberal institutions and values.
Editor’s note: The Liberal Field Guide has awoken from its (blissfully) long winter hibernation – we thank you for your patience, and look forward to serving all your liberal needs in the months ahead.