It is with deep sadness and considerable anger that I write today in response to the latest and most deadly attack against freedom of speech and expression. The office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris — which was fire bombed in 2011 — was stormed by gunmen. The phrase ‘Allahu akbar’ (god is great) was heard among gunshots. The magazine editor, and nine of his staff were killed, as well as two police officers. The attackers escaped and remain at large.
This is not the time to roll out the patriotic/fraternal slogans that promise so much and deliver so little, and to restate the commitment of western nations against terrorism. That has been done well enough before. Today we should stand with France and mourn the deaths of journalists and cartoonists who dared to seek out the ridiculous. The killers are simply criminals, murderers with no defence. The murdered people who were unlike them. Who did not share their frigid reference to a bygone mythology. They should be brought to justice and face the indignity of being treated fairly and humanly under the law.
What rejection of their cause this would mean. Attacks on the freedom of speech and expression particularly of published material goes back to the fatwa on Salman Rushdie from the 1980s. Like the 2005 Danish cartoons featuring the prophet Muhammad the widespread condemnation at the time was targeted at the author, and the cartoonist. Western democracy abandoned principle and tried to appease the offended. Yet freedom of speech means nothing if not the freedom to offend.
So it is not lost on me the significance of UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and US President Barack Obama wasting no time to unequivocally support France and condemn the terrorists. The freedom of the mind to hold opinions and peaceably make them known should not be shackled by the legislation that marked the ‘war on terror’, not should it face the self-censorship of the fearful individual. Rather, I hope the words of Thomas Paine strike a deep and lasting chord. “But everything we see or hear offensive to our feelings, and derogatory to the human character, should lead to other reflections than those of reproach.” It is not a crime to harbour thoughts of violence and repression, but to act on them in a way that causes harm to others.
I don’t like the term terrorist, because of its malleability, and tendency to change meanings depending on the speaker. There’s a stupid liberal motto: one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. This implies that morality is relative, and how well that suits those who genuinely believe that blasphemy should be punished by death. I prefer to call them criminals, and to continue the tradition of the journalists who died. To keep seeking the ridiculous — that which makes life worth living.