Freedom of expression means that – with few limits – nasty people get to say nasty things and irreverent people get to say irreverent things. If freedom protects only tame, inoffensive, respectful speech, it’s not freedom.
That’s a core value of the United States and much of Europe. The massacre of at least 12 people – journalists, cartoonists, a police officer – in Paris on Wednesday wasn’t just an atrocity; it was also a gag order written in blood.
People who insist on speaking their minds routinely face violence in much of the world. It was shocking – but not surprising – when Taliban gunmen shot 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai for championing female education. It was shocking but not surprising when Islamic State goons beheaded two American journalists last summer. In places where extreme Islamists dominate, free speech is often a capital offense.
Now this depravity has emerged in Paris. If religious sensibilities can be enforced by bullets in Western Europe, they can be enforced by bullets anywhere, including the United States.
America has already experienced censorship-by-terror on a lesser scale. North Korea almost prevented Americans from watching “The Interview” – a comedy that ridicules dictator Kim Jong Un – by threatening to attack the theaters that showed it.
More serious was what happened to a Seattle cartoonist, Molly Norris, who in 2010 created a poster announcing a mock event, “Draw Mohammed Day.” The poster was a gentle statement of support for two cancelled South Park episodes that poked fun at Muslim outrage over cartoons of Muhammad.
Radical Muslims had made death threats against Comedy Central, which then pulled the two episodes. By some fluke, an image of Norris’ poster went viral on the Web – making her the target of what the FBI concluded were serious death threats. To stay alive, Norris went into hiding and reportedly changed her name.
The mass murder in Paris was the logical extension of the threats against Norris and European artists who had outspokenly defended the right to ridicule sacred cows.
Two Islamist gunmen broke into the newsroom of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper, and began shooting. There was no pretense that this was about oppressed Palestinians, Western interventions in the Middle East or similar grievances. It was a frontal assault on freedom of expression, pure and simple.Muhammad were genuinely grotesque and outrageous.
But freedom of speech requires that we put up with the speech we hate. The United States, creator of the First Amendment, understands this. France and other Western countries understand it to varying degrees. There are European nations, such as Sweden, that would outlaw Charlie Hebdo’s content as hate speech. But they don’t stone or shoot journalists who cross the line.
Wednesday’s attack, sadly, may succeed to some extent. Editors in Europe are likely to think twice now before they publish serious articles and cartoons that could be construed as attacks on Islam. People who run publications far more important and weighty than Charlie Hebdo will be tempted to pull their punches.
What happened in Paris could as easily happen in the United States. Comedy Central and Sony backed down, however briefly, in the face of terror threats. The massacre in France has shown that some extremists are willing to carry out such threats. Freedom of speech is always under siege; the fight to destroy it has just been escalated.