You’ve probably already heard about what happened in France today:
Masked gunmen attacked the Paris offices of satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday, killing 12 people before fleeing.
French security forces launched a major manhunt in the capital after the gunmen fled the scene of the attack, The Guardian reported. Police are searching for two brothers from the Paris region and another man from the northern French city of Reims in connection with the attack, a police source told Reuters.
The attackers stormed Charlie Hebdo’s Paris newsroom during an editorial meeting and began firing indiscriminately, police and prosecutors said. Witnesses told police that the gunmen shouted “we have avenged the prophet,” according to Agence France-Presse. Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Corinne Rey said the gunmen spoke to her in fluent French and claimed to represent al Qaeda. The gunmen called out some of the victims’ names, she told Reuters.
What is there to say? Civilized people understand that there is no right to go through life without ever being offended. Unfortunately, extremist religion is especially good at making people uncivilized.
Jonathan Chait points out a common and disturbing reaction to such events often, sadly, expressed by liberals:
Just over three years ago, the office of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine whose staff was horrifically murdered, was firebombed. Time‘s Paris bureau chief, Bruce Crumley, responded to the attack at the time with an outpouring of anger and contempt — mostly aimed at the target of the attack. “Okay, so can we finally stop with the idiotic, divisive, and destructive efforts by ‘majority sections’ of Western nations to bait Muslim members with petulant, futile demonstrations that ‘they’ aren’t going to tell `us’ what can and can’t be done in free societies?” he began, “Because not only are such Islamophobic antics futile and childish, but they also openly beg for the very violent responses from extremists their authors claim to proudly defy in the name of common good.” Yes, Crumley carefully noted, terrorism is bad, too. But his primary villain was the satirical magazine that provoked the attacks.
Crumley is loathsome and despicable. His attitudes are as much a threat to a free society as are the actions of the gunmen themselves. Claiming that publishing satirical cartoons constitutes openly begging for violence is awfully close to claiming that violence is an appropriate response to blasphemy. Crumley and the many who think like him are apologists for terrorism, pure and simple.
The trouble, though, is that Chait goes to far in trying to make his point:
Consider, for instance, the official view of the Obama administration, as expressed by White House spokesman Jay Carney in 2012, when asked about Charlie Hebdo‘s blasphemous cartoons depicting Mohammed:
Well, we are aware that a French magazine published cartoons featuring a figure resembling the Prophet Muhammad, and obviously, we have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this. We know that these images will be deeply offensive to many and have the potential to be inflammatory. But we’ve spoken repeatedly about the importance of upholding the freedom of expression that is enshrined in our Constitution.
In other words, we don’t question the right of something like this to be published; we just question the judgment behind the decision to publish it. And I think that that’s our view about the video that was produced in this country and has caused so much offense in the Muslim world.
Now, it has to be said, and I’ll say it again, that no matter how offensive something like this is, it is not in any way justification for violence–not in any way justification for violence. Now, we have been staying in close touch with the French government as well as other governments around the world, and we appreciate the statements of support by French government officials over the past week, denouncing the violence against Americans and our diplomatic missions overseas.
Carney put it more delicately, but his actual line did not stray very far from Crumley’s:
It’s obvious free societies cannot simply give in to hysterical demands made by members of any beyond-the-pale group. And it’s just as clear that intimidation and violence must be condemned and combated for whatever reason they’re committed–especially if their goal is to undermine freedoms and liberties of open societies. But it’s just evident members of those same free societies have to exercise a minimum of intelligence, calculation, civility and decency in practicing their rights and liberties—and that isn’t happening when a newspaper decides to mock an entire faith on the logic that it can claim to make a politically noble statement by gratuitously pissing people off.
Chait concludes with:
The line separating these two positions is perilously thin. The Muslim radical argues that the ban on blasphemy is morally right and should be followed; the Western liberal insists it is morally wrong but should be followed. Theoretical distinctions aside, both positions yield an identical outcome.
The right to blaspheme religion is one of the most elemental exercises of political liberalism. One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.
This is ridiculous. The view expressed by Carney is miles away from the view expressed by Crumley.
Crumley’s view very strongly implies that the blasphemers got what they deserved. That implication is entirely absent from anything Carney said. Also absent from Carney’s statement was any implication that one should never commit blasphemy. Chait just made that up.
Let’s consider a parallel case. There are many Neo-Nazi groups in America that publish offensive and demeaning things about Jews and Blacks and others besides. Suppose that a handful of vigilantes storm into their offices one day and kill the editors and writers, claiming vengeance on behalf of those who were offended.
I’m sure we would all suddenly rush to the defense of the Neo-Nazis. We would talk stirringly about the importance of free expression and would emphasize that being offended is no excuse for violence. We would offer all the usual sentiments, and we would be entirely sincere in doing so.
But every time we made those points, we would also feel compelled to mention that we are not at all defending the content of what the Neo-Nazis published. We would feel almost physically compelled to do so, in fact. Every statement made on their behalf would begin with, “Of course, I don’t approve of what the Neo-Nazis were publishing. But …”
Unlike Crumley, that’s all Carney was doing. He unambiguously condemned the violence and defended the right of free people to publish whatever they like. But he also found time to mention that the administration he represents thinks that what Charlie Hebdo published was a very poor form of satire. I see nothing wrong with that, and I even agree with him up to a point. The rule of thumb is this: Being a dick doesn’t make you a brilliant satirist. And the cartoons in question had far more to do with being dickish than they did with making a serious point about anything.
Perhaps you disagree with Carney, or me, about the artistic merits of the cartoons. Well and good. The point is simply that it’s no affront to liberal principles to defend the right to publish something while questioning the wisdom of doing so. What is an affront to liberal principles, and an all too common one at that, is to imply that blasphemy as such is unacceptable and to further imply that violence is an appropriate response.
In short, Crumley crossed a line Carney never came near.
I said I agree with Carney up to a point. That point comes at the end, where he mocks the idea that Charlie Hebdo was making a noble point. While I don’t generally like dickishness for its own sake, the very fact that there is no shortage of savages like the gunmen in this case, and also no shortage of half-wit apologists like Crumley basically defending them, provides quite a plausible justification for publishing the cartoons. Contrary to Carney, sometimes the very fact that so many people would want outlaw certain forms of expression is, all by itself, a good reason for engaging in that expression.