Cartoons didn’t cause the attack on Charlie Hebdo

An old friend, Tony Barber at the Financial Times, has triggered outrage for a blog post he wrote Wednesday. He questioned the “foolish” editorial judgment of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine struck by a terrorist attack in which 12 people were killed.

Tony’s column was jarring to me, too, but I had the same thought as the news broke. Indeed, every publication that chose not to publish belittling cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in recent years would have had the same thought at some point.

As Tony implies in his piece, a pertinent question is: What were the cartoons for? News organizations make editorial decisions every day that don’t amount to censorship. Even after the attack, there has been a lively controversy over whether to re-publish them. Here is the offending passage in his original post: “If the magazine stops just short of outright insults, it is nevertheless not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo.”

And in the current, updated version that’s on the FT’s website: “This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion. It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims.”

But this is not quite that simple. I disagree with Tony not because free speech is absolute or I revere Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, but because focusing on what allegedly provoked the calculating psychopaths who carried out these attacks gives them credit they don’t deserve. They have a generalized hatred of Western policies and values.

Charlie Hebdo drew attention to itself with cartoons that other publications wouldn’t run, but if it hadn’t, these men would have found other targets (a synagogue, perhaps, or an army barracks, or a bar). The nearly three years that passed between the time when Charlie published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and yesterday’s attack should be a giveaway.

Once you eliminate cause and effect at this level, there is still a debate to be had about free speech and news judgment, in terms of how publications should respond now. So no, free speech is not absolute: Who is for publishing pornography involving children? But should we ban public blasphemy?

France, the U.S. and many other countries decided some time ago that insulting the Almighty was no longer an exception to free speech, unlike pedophilia. Nevertheless, a lot of countries still have laws against either blasphemy or insulting religion – not just in the Middle East, but in about half of the Council of Europe’s 47 member states, including Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.

Indeed, as recently as 2008, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission wrote a report on why these laws should be abolished. Its reasoning is persuasive: “The purpose of any restriction on freedom of expression must be to protect individuals holding specific beliefs or opinions, rather than to protect belief systems from criticism.”

Pedophiliac pornography hurts the children involved; blasphemy may offend individuals, but it does not harm them.

As to news judgment, is every editor who decided not to re-publish the Hebdo cartoons yellow – as my View colleague Leonid Bershidsky suggests? That’s complicated, too. Very few of these publications ran such cartoons before, quite probably because, like Barber, they thought them needlessly disrespectful. The Prophet Muhammad is particularly difficult in this respect, because Muslims believe he should not be depicted at all. (Protestants during the Reformation felt the same way when they lopped the faces and heads off saints in churches across Europe.)

Before yesterday, there was no reason to republish Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons – unless like Ross Douthat of The New York Times you think the fact someone is willing to kill you for it is reason enough. Today, however, it’s a news organization’s responsibility to show readers what it is that these young terrorists claim spurred them to murder 12 people, so they can make their own judgments. This is the value of a free media. Those outlets that chose not to publish may have done so out of principle rather than fear, but if so their news judgment was off.

The publication question illustrates how easy it is to misconstrue what happened yesterday. One police suspect, Cherif Kouachi, was arrested in 2005 and convicted three years later for planning to join the jihad in Iraq. Kouachi’s defense lawyer described him as “an apprentice loser, a delivery boy in a cap who smoked hash and delivered pizza to buy his drugs. He was a clueless kid who didn’t know what to do with his life and, overnight, met people who gave him the feeling of being important.”

But who cares what excuse Kouachi – or whoever is eventually proved to have carried out this attack – might give for deciding to murder? The individuals involved don’t get to decide French law or to execute it, whether they are society’s “losers” or foot soldiers of al-Qaida or Islamic State. And they don’t represent anybody, least of all a religion.

If there is a wider point it is that a kind of civil war is going on in the Middle East and within the Muslim world more broadly. This is, as many have said, a struggle between those who accept modernity and humanism on one side, and those who embrace violent fanaticism based on a medieval mythology on the other. France and the U.K., two former colonial powers with large Muslim minorities, are inevitably involved. The editors of Charlie Hebdo were just victims.