As many a politician and popular figure has discovered the hard way, the right to free speech is a double-edged sword.
I had an entirely different blog in mind for today, but the events in France yesterday preclude anyone who values freedom of expression from talking about anything but the murderous attack on Charlie Hebdo. (‘hebdo’ is a term used in French to mean weekly journal.)
On January 7, two masked gunmen carrying Kalashnikovs, and identifying themselves as al-Qaeda, entered the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, opened fire on an editorial meeting, and murdered 12 people – eight journalists, two office staff, and two police officers.
Among the dead are some of France’s most beloved and well-known cartoonists and writers, including Stephane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier, 47, artist and publisher of Charlie Hebdo, and Jean ‘Cabu’ Cabut, 76, Charlie Hebdo’s lead cartoonist, who was given the Legion of Honour, France’s highest decoration, in 2005.
Also slain were Georges Wolinski, 80, previously of Hara-Kiri, a satirical magazine; Bernard ‘Tignous’ Verlhac, 57, a member of a group of artists called ‘Cartoonists for Peace’; Bernard Maris – known as ‘Uncle Bernard’, 68, economic journalist; Phillipe ‘Honore’ Honore, 73, cartoonist, for Charlie Hebdo since 1992; Michel Renaud, former journalist and political staffer; Mustapha Ourrad, copy editor; and Elsa Cayat, analyst and columnist.
This was not the first time Charlie Hebdo had come under attack. Its offices were firebombed in November of 2011, after the magazine published a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed, and even French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius once famously asked the magazine, “Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?”
France, with a Muslim population of 5 million, the largest in Europe, has faced decades of internal tensions. Charlie Hebdo’s satirical covers and cartoons were famous for provocatively lampooning religion, with a special emphasis on Muslim extremism.
Regardless of the gunmen’s religious views, 12 people were murdered, and the men who committed the crime need to be caught and punished. And certainly, no one in a democratic country should fear a penalty of death for speaking their mind.
The national motto of France originates from the French Revolution. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, (Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.) On Wednesday night, thousands of Parisians showed solidarity with the victims by attending a vigil on the Place de la Republique, holding up homemade signs with the word, “Je Suis Charlie,” (I am Charlie) and spelling out the words in votive candles.
French police continue to search for the gunmen, one of whom has confirmed jihadist links. It is feared the fugitives could be planning another terrorist attack.
The world is in shock. Tributes and support have flooded into France as the Free World mourns the vicious attack. John Kerry, US Secretary of State, joined the outcry, saying, “freedom of expression is not able to be killed by this kind of act of terror.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the murders as an attack on “freedom of expression — a key component of our free democratic culture.”
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, however, did not focus on freedom of expression, instead taking a militant stance on the terrorist aspect. “Canada and its allies will not be intimidated and will continue to stand firmly together against terrorists who would threaten the peace, freedom and democracy our countries so dearly value.”
Freedom of Expression is not just a North American or European belief. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, says: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The response to offensive but non-violent speech is more speech, not violence or legal reprisals. The response to unprovoked violence is legal pursuit and justice being served upon the perpetrators.
Despite our horror and condemnation of this act, we must understand that murdering innocent people in the name of some ‘noble cause’ is still murder. A few madmen extremists who hope to be martyred in the name of their religion cannot take away our rights. But it is down to every citizen of every democratic country to continue to demand the right to freedom of expression, and to never take that right for granted.