Yesterday, masked gunmen burst into the office of a French satirical weekly and murdered twelve people. The city of Paris, and, indeed, the entire free world, is stricken by the news of this audacious attack. Canadians are feeling afresh the shock and sadness of what happened to us less than three months ago. Many are wondering what the next target will be, because we know there will be one. It’s only a matter of time.
The publication, Charlie Hebdo, prints cartoons skewering everything from politics to religion to life in general. They’ve attracted negative attention many times from many people, including a fire bombing in 2011. Stéphane Charbonnier, the editor, was unrepentant. If anything, the threats galvanized him to continue in his irreverent ways. He is quoted as having said that he’d rather die on his feet (freely saying and doing whatever he wants) than live on his knees (surrendering to terrorists by apologizing and censoring himself). He died on his feet.
I don’t need to state just how despicable this latest act of Islamist terrorism is. We all know. I do, however, feel the need to address some people’s reactions. Not even twenty-four hours after the news broke, I saw more than one person condemn the attack – and then water down their condemnation with an effete line about the wrongness of disrespecting others’ religious beliefs. This is irrelevant at best; at worst, it is victim-blaming. It is no different than pointing out that a homeowner did not have an alarm system when his home was invaded, mulling over what an abused child was doing to anger his parents, or questioning what a raped woman was wearing at the time of her assault. It doesn’t matter what Charlie Hebdo was distributing – there is not even the barest shred of justification for what happened in that office yesterday.
Papers, magazines, radio, music, TV and movies all poke fun at lots of people and things. Stupid people, fat people, ugly people, old people, celebrities, civil servants, lawyers, bums, politics and politicians – and, yes, religion and religious people. Is it nice? No. But we, as a country, have agreed that it is allowed – we embrace and support freedom of expression, even if the expression is unpopular, unkind or downright rude. If we allow any individual or group to decide what is an acceptable subject and form of expression, that freedom will be diminished. If we allow that because of fear, all of our freedoms will disappear.
When something offends you in our open and free society, there are a few things you can do. You can contact those who produce and distribute the offensive content and express your opinion of it to them. You can whine about it on social media. You can blog about it. You can take out a full-page ad in the newspaper declaring your aversion to the offence in question. You can sue. Or you can simply turn away – stop reading, listening or watching – and encourage like-minded people to do the same. These terrorists – these vicious, ignorant, ridiculous wastes of oxygen and space – decided to address it with AK-47s.
Our country has also agreed that capital punishment is not an acceptable judgement even for the most heinous criminals – even if merely thinking about their crime is nauseating and horrifying. We keep them alive on the taxpayer’s dime rather than kill them. We do not condone eye-for-eye – and certainly not life-for-insult – justice. So, please stop implying that a few cartoonists may have invited their own execution by creating and publishing impertinent drawings. It’s senseless, disgusting and unworthy of a just, free, enlightened society – much like the terrorists who killed them.