Suddenly, satire is the great issue of our time.
Last month, North Korea launched a cyberattack, accompanied by threats of physical violence, against the makers and distributors of a silly film that dared to violate the cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong Un, according to the FBI. Pyongyang’s alleged hack succeeded, at least temporarily, in blocking the movie’s release.
And now there’s the slaughter of 12 people in Paris, mostly staff members of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly that delighted in mocking the prophet Muhammad, who were gunned down by masked men crying “Allahu Akbar” and “We have avenged the prophet.”
It turns out that such political jokesters take big risks, bigger than perhaps even they realize or anticipate — and the repercussions affect us all.
Yet it is vitally important that the United States and all other Western democracies rally to their unequivocal defense.
If freedom means anything, it means freedom of expression — to include expression that some might find irresponsible, offensive or even blasphemous. In the realm of art and ideas, pretty much nothing is, or should be, sacred, lest we head down the slippery slope to censorship, or self-censorship.
Obvious as that principle might seem, Western politicians have been a bit wobbly about it in recent times. In September 2012, when Islamist extremists rioted across the Middle East, ostensibly because they took offense at a crude Internet video mocking Muhammad, Charlie Hebdo fired back by making fun of Muhammad in its own pages. The French foreign minister accused the editors of pouring “oil on the fire.” President Obama’s spokesman questioned the publication’s “judgment.”
To be sure, both officials quickly added that Charlie Hebdo had a right to publish what it wanted and that no mere publication or video could justify violence.
Yet their mixed messages unavoidably implied that the rioters had a valid point, which is never something you want to imply — at least not if you understand how dangerous it is to give violent extremists a veto over what your citizens can and cannot say.
Here’s an irony: Americans and Europeans have spent much of the past year and a half debating how to rein in the potential threat that the National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance poses to privacy and freedom. Yet in that time, the worst actual assaults on freedom of expression in the West have been carried out by the totalitarian, nuclear-armed North Korean state and, now, in Paris, by Islamist terrorists — that is, the very people against whom the NSA is supposed to protect.
In fact, if you wanted to fault the “surveillance state” for anything, in light of these events, it might be for being insufficiently comprehensive.
The Paris massacre reminds us once again that there are real threats to democracy, from states and organizations that regard freedom itself as evil, and that Western democracies need strong intelligence, police and military institutions, appropriately restrained by law, to counter those threats.
Ultimately, though, security and law enforcement cannot substitute for clarity about our own values. Fortunately, there has been some progress on that front. Perhaps learning from the futility of his administration’s equivocations about the Muhammad video in 2012, Obama responded forthrightly to North Korea’s alleged cyberattack.
Ordinary Americans, too, eventually roused themselves to assert their rights, despite the (admittedly implausible) threats of North Korean-backed violence.
Of course, these demonstrations of civil courage were trivial in comparison with the routine bravery Charlie Hebdo’s editorial director, Stephane Charbonnier, practiced in the exercise of his fundamental human right to make fun of all religions. He did this in spite of constant death threats, one bombing and not-so-subtle official pressure to cool it, so as not to inflame the extremists.
“Everyone is driven by fear, and that is exactly what this small handful of extremists who do not represent anyone want — to make everyone afraid, to shut us all in a cave,” he said in 2012.
Stephane Charbonnier persisted in acting on those beliefs right up until Wednesday, when he lost his life for them.
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.
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