Something important and fundamental has been lost in conflicting responses to the terrorist attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The official western response has been absolute identification with the magazine (“I am Charlie Hebdo”), while all too many Islamic groups have even openly refused to condemn this act of radical Islamic terrorism. The Obama Administration, for its part, has acted as if France was hit by some kind of inexplicable natural disaster requiring a hug, but no analysis or meaningful response whatsoever. What has been lost? Recognition of why the killings were wrong. Again, one would think the answer rather obvious, but barbaric mass murder has been lost in ideology, and this is a dangerous thing.
The standard response has been that the killings were an attack on free speech; the only reasonable, moral course is to trumpet and expand free speech to its ultimate ends protecting it at all costs. Charlie Hebdo’s editor has captured the general tenor of this argument, calling on people to stand up for “secularism.” Even conservative pundits have told religious folk (including Christians and Jews) to “get used to” highly public, even official acts of blasphemy against their religions. The only other response, we are told, is murderous. Pope Francis’ seemingly clumsy comments questioning whether free speech is absolute were greeted with a combination of shock and contempt.
News flash: what was wrong with the act of terrorism against Charlie Hebdo was not its “message” of opposition to blasphemy but its very character; it was a barbaric act of mass murder. One may, in fact, be disgusted by much of what is foisted upon people of faith in our secular media and still recognize that censorship is a bad idea and murder is evil. Indeed, only such a combination of civilized reactions can serve as a basis for civil discourse in a free society. The other choices lead to ethno-religious violence and/or anti-religious oppression.
A nexus of the problem can, as always, be found at that bastion of conventional no-thinking, the New York Times. That newspaper’s decision to censor the Charlie Hebdo drawings on grounds of “religious sensitivity”—after decades of gleefully reprinting hyper blasphemous images, including a picture of a crucifix in a jar of urine—has been labeled what it clearly is: hypocritical cowardice in the face of a clear and present danger of radical Islamic violence. Again, however, the criticism focuses solely on the failure to be even more aggressive about the exercise of free speech. The answer, apparently, is to publish ever more blasphemous pictures and writings, be ever more aggressive in ridiculing people’s religious faith, and, especially in France, be ever more repressive in passing and enforcing laws banning all (including Christian and Jewish) expressions of faith in the public square. This may be more even-handed than what one finds in Muslim countries where Christianity is essentially illegal, or in the plans of the “multicultural” Obama Administration and its pseudo-intellectual allies who would further suppress Christian images and promote Islamic ones, but it hardly is the making of world peace, let alone any healthy society of ordered liberty.
Part of the problem may simply be an all-or-nothing attitude naturally resulting from such a horrendous, barbaric set of acts. But public policy should not be based on anger, or even cloying phrases from a James Taylor song, as in Secretary of State John Kerry’s belated visit to France. Rather, we need to make it clear to ourselves what it is that is being condemned and even how much. The greatest evil, here, clearly is mass murder—whatever its justification. Also evil (I use the term advisedly) is giving aid and comfort to those who would commit such acts, including on grounds of feeling insulted or even defiled. Civilized nations and civilized people simply do not act in this way and those, who find in their religion justification for such acts, condemn their religion as well as themselves.
However, once we clearly recognize such evils for what they are, our job is not done. We do not have carte blanche to see in any form of opposition to any exercise of “free speech” the makings of repression and mass murder. It is not, in fact, morally wrong to be insulted when someone insults you. For too long our “secular” elites have felt free to ridicule religious people as much and as viciously as they choose in the name of freedom. And Christians and Jews (and the vast majority of Muslims) have looked on peacefully, or at most grumbled at the intentional insults. What the New York Times has shown is that only fear, real fear of violence, will lessen its commitment mocking people of faith. It is, to say the least, unwise to restrict opposition to anti-religious insults to terrorism. France’s “middle ground,”—including, as it does, rather draconian hate speech codes—simply adds repression to the volatile mix.
What, then, ought we to do? Obviously, terrorists should be hunted down and punished as quickly and severely as possible within the law. At the same time, however, and as part of a policy of restoring our proper, historical understanding of free speech and the role of religion in public life, we need to demand more of our newspapers and magazines. Civility must be the core of public discourse. This leaves no room for any draconian code of censorship, let alone terrorist violence. But it is time for people of all faiths and secularists, who value civil discourse, to agree that intentional insults, like those becoming all too common in our culture, should not be condoned or reproduced in the mainstream media.
For too long, now, Christians in particular have allowed their voices to be stifled and their faiths to be mocked. It is time that we demand of our lamestream media that it consign blasphemy and anti-religious ridicule to the marginal world of religion-haters where it belongs, refusing on grounds of principle, rather than fear, to reproduce what is clearly intended as an insult.
Thankfully, much of the answer here lies within the power of ordinary Americans. I noticed at the end of the Seattle Seahawks’ victory in the National Football Conference championship game that the network actually showed what normally is ignored—the many players joining in prayers of thanks after the game. And the Seattle Seahawks’ quarterback, Russell Wilson, made a point of thanking God repeatedly, including after others tried their best to “secularize” the moment with vapid atmospherics. Mr. Wilson would not have needed to make any such point fifty years ago. He probably could not have done it fifteen years ago, but more and more Christians in particular have been pushing back against the media’s “secularizing” of our culture in recent years. We all should stand up like Russell Wilson—including by complaining to newspapers and magazines that continue ridiculing our faith. Such tactics certainly are open to Muslims, who deserve the same respect in this area as Christians, even as any who would commit violence in the name of God deserve condemnation in this life and the next.
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