The real price of freedom

What set the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo apart from other media was the bravery and tenacity with which it pursued its editorial mission even in the face of death… and the same cannot be said for everyone who now identifies with it.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

As tension continues to escalate in the aftermath of last Wednesday’s brutal murder of 10 French cartoonists by Islamist gunmen in Paris, many in Europe and elsewhere find themselves questioning their own commitment to defend values which have to a point defined us for centuries.

The ‘Je Suis Charlie’ placards that have permeated solidarity marches are more than a mere statement of defiance and unity. But at the same time they are also somewhat less than the truth. 

What set the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo apart from other media was the bravery and tenacity with which it pursued its editorial mission even in the face of death… and the same cannot be said for everyone who now identifies with it.

Many have questioned this editorial mission in the past, arguing that it was foolhardy to risk so much just to poke some tasteless fun at other people’s beliefs.

But as last Wednesday’s attack also illustrates, there was all along a far broader purpose behind the continued defiance of Charlie Hebdo than its actual output as a publication over the years. Its mere existence also attested, continually, to the truth behind the Voltairian maxime that freedom of expression also means the freedom to express ideas or opinions that are distasteful or disturbing, to oneself or to others: a maxim that has continually been upheld by the European Court of Human Rights. 

Any threat to this freedom, at any level, is also a threat to the principle that upholds it. For this reason Voltaire would have ‘fought to the death’ for the right of others to express opinions with which he himself disagreed: indeed, because he disagreed with them.

These are among the core principles over which the epochal French Revolution revolved. They form the corner stone, not only of the Republic of France, but of the whole of post-Enlightenment Europe: it is from these principles that the entire concept of human rights first arises.

Charlie Hebdo tried to keep us from forgetting this vital truth: and also illustrated the ultimate price for defending it.

To those of us involved in the media, the murder of editor Stephane Charbonniere and nine of his staff came not only as a shock and a tragedy, but also as a grim reminder that there is ultimately a price tag attached to ‘freedom of expression’. Those values we so often take for granted are neither universal nor indefinite; and defending them means little, if one is not prepared to die fighting.

Wednesday’s massacre also throws into focus the limitations of our own resolve in such extreme cases. As with any other mode of employment, the media have responsibilities towards their employees and their families. The example set by the staff of Charlie Hebdo therefore inspires us, but also shames us: it is for this reason, perhaps, that heroes are admired… because they represent the courage and moral fibre we would all like to claim as our own, but can’t.

But as life goes on, there remain other responsibilities for the media: including a duty to resist becoming too emotionally involved, and to calmly analyse and assess the implications of what happened. 

The Charlie Hebdo massacre has heightened fears of further terrorist attacks; and already there have been repercussions suggesting a wave of reprisals. The timing alone has a foreboding significance. It was only recently that ISIS declared a ‘caliphate’ reaching deep into Europe, and vowing to wage its war on European soil. It is little comfort that the suspects in this case are associated with Al Qaeda: the aims of such organisations are not dissimilar. 

Coming at such a sensitive time, this latest instance of carnage in the name of radical Islam can only have reinforced the widespread impression of an ‘inevitable’ ideological clash of cultures. There are political ramifications to this state of affairs: already the extreme right was on an upswing in Europe, propelled by misgivings about immigration. And this week’s events may leave an imprint on the political landscape in other ways, too. 

Experience such as the post-9/11 scenario suggests that governments may use the heightened tension to push through legislation that may itself put our basic rights in jeopardy. Ironically, in response to an attack on human rights, we may unwittingly undermine those rights ourselves.

Before responding to this threat, it would be prudent to dispassionately determine its precise nature. How much of this fear is rooted in actuality, and how much dictated by our own perceptions? There is reason to believe that a large proportion of second-generation French Muslims espouse the same principles that are currently under attack by extremists within the same religion. This naturally doesn’t lessen the existing threat posed by the homicidal minority; but it does at least dispel the illusion of inevitability. 

At present few would deny that there is an ongoing clash between aspects of different co-existing cultures in our midst. Reality dictates otherwise. But it doesn’t follow that this clash arose merely because of co-existence alone. Yet doubtless there will be forces pulling us precisely in this direction.

This would be regrettable and self-defeating. One does not fight prejudice with more prejudice.

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