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Je Suis Charlie

Another terrorist attack by Islamic fundamentalists strikes at a great Western institution. More than fragile human bodies, the target is picked out of revenge and the sense of fear it is supposed to instill. But this time, it was not a seat of power or finance that was hit – it was our values.

Free expression is a central value throughout the western world, only accepted after centuries of struggle and violence. It is something that we hold as a “certain unalienable right” at the core of who we are as a people. What exactly that means, however, has been an important question long before these anti-Western reactionaries committed their despicable act.

CharlieThe cartoon magazine that was targeted because it once ran cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, a blasphemy in the eyes of Islam. The murder of 12 people was a direct result of that, an act of revenge for Charlie Hebdo’s act of expression. If we are to say that we truly value free expression we must stand together as a people and denounce what was done. Free expression must remain free.

Yet this highlights the difficulties of free expression as a fundamental value.

We have experienced in the US people who were fired or targeted for expressing how they felt about certain subjects. The reactions were always visceral, as could be expected for something so fundamental. No matter how badly it sat at the end, however, most of us had to reluctantly agree that while free expression is extremely important, it does not shield any of us from the consequences of our actions.

But a line is crossed when the consequences for what we say include terror and death.

The problem with this is that anyone who wants to kill you, or at least make your life miserable, probably can as long as they value that more than their own life. In the US, advanced weapons are commonly available and often regarded as another fundamental right. Internationally, it’s even more dangerous, with relatively small numbers of fundamentalists often gaining access to powerful weapons that allow them to create a lot of mayhem. The militants who struck at Charlie Hebdo’s office were certainly ready to die for their act – which made them, or any number of people like them, nearly impossible to stop.

Free Speech, from Norman Rockwell's Four Freedoms series.  We don't live in this kind of world anymore.

Free Speech, from Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series. We don’t live in this kind of world anymore.

Our fundamental Western values, as strongly as we want to protect them, cannot constantly be defended in this world. There is absolutely no way that we can guarantee anyone truly free expression without abhorrent consequences, no matter how much we want to think otherwise.

This is the result of a world that is coming together in ways that are uneven and unpredictable. The Islamic world does not have the same values we do, nor do many other non-Western people. This is understandable given that we only recently accepted free expression as a universal right, and that only after many had died fighting for it. In this new world, more blood will have to be shed to expand that right and make this value truly universal – and there is probably no other way it will come down. There was a horrific inevitability in this attack along with a prediction of much more to come.

That is not to say that Islam is stagnant or will not change. On his facebook page American born Islamic scholar and teacher Shaykh Abdullah Hakim Quick of the al Maghrib Institute said:

Even though insults and attacks are being hurled at Muslims by right wing bigots and secular extremists, Islam does not condone the killing of innocents or even random assassination of people who have drawn pictures or made statements against Allah and His Messenger. The killings in Paris today have to be condemned by the whole Muslim world and extremism has to be opposed. Almighty Allah tells us:
“Invite (all) to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: surely your Lord knows best who have strayed from His Path and who have received guidance.” (16:125)
A true Islamic State should be a place of peace, stability and tolerance; not chaos, hated and wanton killing!!!

This fundamental value we hold so dear in the West can, indeed, be found in the Q’uran itself. There is hope for our worlds to come together peacefully one day, as unlikely as that seems now.

A little respect goes a long way.

A little respect goes a long way.

On a personal note, I find this event especially difficult. I make a point of being as kind and respectful as possible in every moment of my life, apologizing quickly and sincerely when I do offend. The original cartoon was not something I would have ever defended on the grounds that I do not find deliberate provocation or insult to be funny in any way at all. That may make me a coward in the eyes of some, and I accept that. But now that a line has been crossed and a simple insult has been met with a horrible act of terrorism, I have to stand with free expression.  Je suis Charlie today.

This is what is so tricky about fundamental social values like free expression. Perhaps I should more vigorously defend everyone else’s expression as a basic right that we all must hold. For me, my words are often limited by my desire to not offend and keep channels of communication open even with those with whom I very much disagree. As a society, however, the fundamental value has to be more absolute. What I value and what society values are often different.  Without this understanding, free expression is usually little more than a threat.

In this world, drawn closer every day, this value and open communication is critical to finding peace among the many peoples with many different values.

You can't force respect.

You can’t force respect.

How can this all work? The bumpersticker sometimes displayed by those who value gun rights states that “An armed society is a polite society”. This has proven far from true. Yes, free expression has to be valued, cherished, and even defended. Yet it also has to include room for respect, though that respect cannot be enforced by the iron barrel of a gun. It has to come from the heart.

This act of terrorism has challenged both the Islamic and Western worlds in critical ways. The Islamic world needs to reach into its heart and find a way to walk among infidels without allowing any of their number to pollute their faith with violence. It’s a nearly impossible task. The Western world needs to defend free expression with the passion a fundamental right requires while also finding room for respect. It’s also a very difficult thing to do.

But we must both do this because every day we come closer together, more and more sharing only one world. That world has to be created in peace and justice, not murder and revenge. Will that take as many centuries as the struggle for basic rights took in the West? I hope not, because I hope to live to see it. I hope to be a part of creating it.

15 thoughts on “Je Suis Charlie

  1. They knew this was coming. That doesn’t excuse a terrorist attack but when you bring it on yourself like this and even brag about how its going to happen somehow it seems different.
    I agree that respect is what we need. These guys had none.

    • After the initial shock of the attack there is a lot more talk like this. I am glad. I don’t want to blame the cartoonists because no one deserves violent death for their actions, but we cannot forget what lines they crossed.

  2. How many “terror attacks” are there in a month? a year? It seems like this is not a common thing really, not that excuses it. Seems as though these guys provoked this one and got what they expected. Doesn’t make it right but it’s hardly an assault on our “values” nor a common occurence.

    • You are right, this is not a common thing. A lot about this stands apart, but the world may be learning from it. That is good. Hopefully more good can come of this.

  3. Appreciate your article. It is so true that ‘There is absolutely no way that we can guarantee anyone truly free expression without abhorrent consequences.’ That is why free speakers who push the boundaries are heroes, whether it be a political cartoonist or a young girl (Malala) speaking for female education – they are taking a huge risk.

    • Malala is another topic to me in many ways, but you are right that at a fundamental level they are the same. We do have to support the right to print or say vile things, like these cartoons, in order to create space for critical free speech and effort like Malala’s. It is very hard.

  4. If you notice the cartoons of Jews in the 30s and 40s and of black folk in the USA from the time after the civil war when Congress was full of black men (though not woman) through the time when linching was fine and honorable in this country maybe those men did go to war in that also sacred bastion of freedom of speech violating also sacred human life to defend something else also sacred.
    The film maker Theo van Gogh was assasinated for making the film Submission.
    As artists who starve and die for art I’d say that was worth it as he apperantly from what I read in Infidel, felt as well. People benefited from that film. Yeah the regular astablishment, in this case the good old Muslim boys, everyone has them it seems, that never fails to be offended and oppose dangerous challangeing freedom of speech.
    These scenarios seem different.
    I do not condone violence. Yet those gunmen like Theo might be on to something. Something human. Hopefully “we” can respond to their inhumanity much more matutre than they did to that freedom of speech inhumanity.
    I have some experience being painted into a corner via open season gratuitous fun makeing. It’s an integral part of The Terrorist Assembly Line.
    Terrorists are against something that exsists and is harmful to them.
    They have the upper hand and are not afraid to fight and die. Sounds like Braveheart when you think about it.
    It’s hard but figuring out how to respect is much more safe and effective and human than guns after ghosts.
    It was refreshing that you noticed the cartoons where vile.

    • There is so much we as a people need to work out. It starts with a greater understanding of us, as people – the whole world coming together. Respect is so important to this process, but so is free expression. We saw the two collide violently in ways that it’s hard to make sense of.
      What we can say is that the whole world, western and islamic, has seen a number of lines crossed that no one wants to cross again. That is good. We know the limits now. Let’s work on that.

      • Agreed
        Do you see bully awareness and response training in American schools implemented after shootings working?
        I wonder if there is some conection and if it works to prevent violence in more than just playgrounds.
        My grade school kid practices both how and why to not bully then how to unwind a bully.
        Also, know a person who served the US guarding “the bad guys” in Afganistan. When he’d been transfered and the prison rioted they demanded him to return and negotiate. He was recommisioned or whatever, back.
        I was not really sure what to do about 500 guys rioting and just a few of us guards. It was pretty scarry.
        But I walked in there. Looked the first leader I faced.
        I’m pissed. What the hell are youguys doing?!
        He sighed. Hung his head a bit. Started telling me his reasons so I wouldn’t be mad at him. You know just like people do.
        And these would be terrorists try to talk you out of being mad? Then they listen to you? Why?
        Well, when I look at them I see men. Just like me. I respect them. I think they just respect me back. It’s sorta natural. I didn’t even negotiate or give them what they were suposedly rioting for. They calmed down. It’s a detention after all there wasn’t much I could change.
        That’s just how I remember the story.
        I’m sure this is a lot more complex that a few insighs and stories.
        It just seems a good idea to see men not monsters. Cuz our collective John Wayne gonna kick their collective as gets responded to by “theirs”. And “he” is an illusive mystery that does not have to abide by the Geneva conventions. Evidently he is as bad as ours but we are at a disadvantage.
        I figure best not play the John Wayne for freedom of speech card.
        Also from back seat wondering. In the story Infadel, which is the closest I ever found a story of a regular person becoming an extramist and working her way back into a new moderate reality, the author, I can’t recal her name just now, I think mentioned that the extramists are mosty young idealists as she was. They don’t respect anyone for real cuz they don’t believe them. They are not true to the god or the level of god/alah some young people discover like first love. Its a fire. Not a good thing to make fun of or disrespect. Not much different in ferver than the people who do a lot of good driven by this same depth of love of God and people. These guys missed out on the people part in a big way. It’s just that some are on their own feel persecuted and don’t feel any community or communion. I mean really. Does anyone kill people who like them? We ignore hit lists when we like or respect eachother. The Korean, like the Bible is pretty clear about taking out the bad guys. When our society took that literally we had all those holy wars, inquisitions, protestants and Catholics executing eachother depending on wheather the king was the one or the other at the time. Pretty teenage really. It’s not all Islam becoming young idealists. Just those few who are are fullest of ferver then feel isolated even from their own communites and mocked by something, I’m not sure what in their case, but I know what it feels like and how some of us end up responding when feeling cast out then some kind of defensless except for where you are strong and that is in God or Alah like any saint. Saint, warrior of god, martyr…So easily called terrorist… Shows great ignorance deserves no respect… If you see a monster where someone feels like a saint or an Eastern kind of John Wayne hero good luck with that.
        Not any more than it’s all Christians protesting at funerals and condemning like that one group we have in the USA are all or any big portion of Muslims any more violent than regular milions of non violent Muslims. They can read their holy book like we read our good old word of god and not destroy all unbelevers just like we Christians eventually figured out we could manage. This way of violence a few take has it’s own pathology I think. That there is a way to end it that is not more violence seems likely.
        I just gleaned this and compared it to what I remember from being a violent young idealist. In my case people I could respect brought me back. Also there was a place to come back to. Llike in the TED talk fighting a war with Christmas lights.
        It also made me think of the documenery film of the young orphan elephants rescued when their dams where poached. It’s sorta the same story. Young male elephants came into must, got violent, killed and destryed everything including white rhinos.
        Park rangers couldn’t figure out what to do. They thought if I remember right, watch it yourself, they might have to put down they once rescued little cuties. Someone at the preserve knew something about respect. They sedated and flew in a few big old daddys. The old elephants showed up and did what they naturally do. Violence in the wild preserve which had stopped being safe, ended. The pups felt that old anger, got their asses kicked, hung their heads a bit then went back to being growing kid elephants.
        A few good old elephants and a bit less mocking of sacred experience one doesn’t understand yet, may, along with a few more things that I don’t understand yet, make this story work out, for everyone but the dead after all.
        What if what terrorrists really want is to belong? That’s usually what humans most want.
        Terrorists are first and foremost human just like the people they kill and just like eveyone that hurts. It hurts all the way accross the world to where I live. It hurts my children, though not as much as it hurts the young idealist’s mothers.

      • The response to nearly all of this remains what it was in WWII Britain – “Keep Calm and Carry On”. Our connected world created the terrorists as well as the venues in which they operate. The more I think about this, the more I realize that aside from talking about respect there is little that we can or should do. A sense of order is very important.

  5. It was a great piece until the whole bit about guns. The thing is, respect can be forced via an iron barrel. Our military forces other nations to respect democracy by acts of war. We forced Osama Bin Laden to respect our ideologies to the point of death. The bumper sticker comment was a bit misplaced – but it has informed me that, in the future, I should be aware of your antigun sentiments.

    I’ll tell you this much, if a burglar forcefully enters into my home and threatens my wife and/or child, you can bet they will forcefully respect my right to privacy and property, with haste, via a .45 caliber Colt. I expect to be called out as a extremist, etc for saying that…but before those comments begin let it be known that I fought in OIF and never fired a single round, despite that those around me were eager to pull the trigger on anything that could be excused.

    • But did the use of a gun really force respect? Has the terrorists’ use of guns given us a new respect for them (which was my point)? The answer is no, it does not. We live in a world lacking in respect in many ways – and guns are apparently not improving that at all.
      If you think I am “anti-gun”, you have a surprise. I am in favor of reasonable regulation, which I think we have in place here in Minnesota. For example, you can’t get a concealed carry permit without demonstrating that you know how to use the gun, including a minimum score on a target. That is a good regulation and I support it, but it’s hardly restrictive.
      But does a gun force respect? Logically, it should. But we have discovered that the gun alone does not. No one respects the terrorists and, to counter your point, the US doesn’t get all that much respect around the world given how many people continue to mess with us.

      • You can wax academic on the use of “respect” but the bottom line is this – if your life is on the line, you will do what you are told when facing down a loaded weapon. If a mugger grabs you, forces a pistol into your ribs and demands your wallet, you would be a fool to not respect his wishes, whether or not you esteem or revere this individual.

        Guns are not meant to improve respect in the sense of reverence. Guns are meant for recreation, defense and hunting. Given erroneous use, of course, guns can be used to force agenda, ideology, and action.

        I am not sure I understand your closing remarks – the US has fundamentally differing ideologies from our mid-eastern enemies. Guns do not play into this divide. To be clear, my examples were specific to acts of war. As an example, we instilled the foundations of democracy in Iraq…by use of force. That Iraq fell flat on its face after we pulled out, and even whether or not what we did there was “right,” is not the point. We stepped in, and Iraq collectively respected our wishes. Does the country respect us now? Well…it is hardly a country, but no. How do we get it/them to respect us again? Send in the Marines.

        If you truly support private firearm ownership, then I respectfully retract my earlier comment and apologize for reading your post incorrectly.

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