Reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre shows how we’ve lost our free-speech spine


Nobody should be confused about the nature of the brazen attack on the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. This apparent act of jihadist violence was designed to silence a publication seen as outrageous and provocative by many, and to send a chilling signal.

As one fleeing gunman exclaimed, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad! Charlie Hebdo is dead!”

Other publications got the message. Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005, immediately increased its security. Spanish publication El Pais, skittish in the wake of the Paris attack, evacuated its offices after the delivery of a suspicious package.

The Internet has been littered with tepid denunciations of the attack that simultaneously condemn Charlie Hebdo for publishing controversial material. Prominent publications reporting on the attack have sent extraordinarily mixed messages by blurring or else refusing to show some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons when reporting the story.

We have slid sadly backward in our willingness to stand up for free expression in the face of violence. In 1989, Westerners were shocked when Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for British-Indian author Salman Rushdie’s death after he published “The Satanic Verses.”

Rushdie’s book did bring violence, including to Europe, Turkey and Japan. This violence even reached the U.S., when two bookstores in Berkeley, Calif., were firebombed. Yet Rushdie was widely regarded as a free-speech hero in the West.

Our stomach for standing behind speech portrayed as offensive to the Islamic faith has eroded over time. When Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, it did so in a particular context: Its editor described the cartoons as challenging “an article of self-censorship which rules large parts of the Western world.”

It took a while for widespread protests and violence to erupt, as well as some effort on the part of Denmark-based Imam Ahmed Abu Laban to internationalize the issue. But as the situation escalated, many Western publications responded in the Rushdie paradigm, holding free speech as sacrosanct.

Diverse publications across Europe republished the cartoons. They did so based on the principle that it was dangerous to cave to threats to free expression.

Around this time, though, the Rushdie paradigm began to give way to a more tepid understanding of the relationship between “offensive” speech and reactive violence. Other publications refused to republish the cartoons, viewing them as offensive.

And speech from nontraditional sources further muddied the waters. When Florida pastor Terry Jones threatened to burn a Koran in September 2010, even Gen. David Petraeus felt the need to plead with Jones to refrain.

After Jones finally burned Islam’s holy book in March 2011, an angry crowd in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan, attacked a UN compound, killing at least eight. In 1991, Jones would have been consigned to the letters-to-the-editor section of the local newspaper, but because the Internet gives even the nuttiest person an audience, he caused an international incident. The following year, the crude film “Innocence of Muslims” did the same.

Such incidents can make the ground on which the battle for free expression is fought confusing. They should not make us lose sight of the principles at stake — nor should they make us forget that free speech is designed precisely to protect offensive speech, as nobody wants to censor what they find inoffensive.

When a commentator for The New Yorker feels the need to point out that the slaughter of Charlie Hebdo’s staff “should not cause anyone to second-guess Charlie Hebdo’s editorial decisions,” that is a sign of just how far we have come.

When the Rushdie paradigm was strong, this would not need to be said.