The police are evacuating the Gare du Nord station in Paris as my train from Brussels arrives; a suspicious package, I learned later. The rain is coming down quite hard. I resist the urge to interview my taxi driver about the current mood.
We see a blue “Je Suis Charlie” sign on a lamppost. Very nice. But the sentiment is partially a conceit. We are not all Charlie. Much of Europe, which, as a political entity, is not fully grappling with the totalitarian madness of Islamism, is not Charlie. Certainly much of journalism is not Charlie. Any outlet that censors Charlie Hebdo cartoons out of fear of Islamist reprisal is not Charlie. To publish the cartoons now is a necessary, but only moderately brave, act. Please remember: Even after Charlie Hebdo was firebombed in 2011, it continued to publish rude and funny satires mocking the essential ridiculousness of the Islamist worldview. That represented a genuine display of bravery. CNN, the Associated Press, and the many other media organizations that are cowering before the threat of totalitarian violence represent something other than bravery.
Here is someone who is not Charlie: Tony Barber, of the Financial Times, who wrote yesterday: “Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims. 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.”
He went on: “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 are actually just being stupid.” (Some of these lines have since been edited out of Barber's "expanded and updated" FT column without explanation.)
Stupid is in the eye of the beholder. To me, it seems stupid and self-destructive to let men with guns tell us what we can or cannot write, or read.
Do you know who else isn’t Charlie? Barack Obama isn’t Charlie. This is from a speech the president delivered to the United Nations General Assembly in 2012:
The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied.
I wish President Obama had not said this, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the Holocaust is an historical fact, and church desecrations are physical crimes against property; neither vandalism nor the denial of historical reality compare to the mocking of unprovable religious beliefs. (And yes, I find attacks on the principles of my faith painful, but I would defend the right of people to make such attacks; I'm opposed, for instance, to the criminalization of Holocaust denial.)
Mainly, Obama’s statement is troubling because it should be the role of the president of the United States, who swears an oath to defend the Constitution, to explain to the world the principle that free speech is sacred—painful, sometimes, but sacred. If the future does not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam—in other words, to people who speak freely and offensively—then it belongs to those who would suppress by force any criticism of religion. This is not an American idea, and it certainly isn’t Charlie.