Several hours after the deadly attacks on a Parisian satirical magazine this morning, Financial Times columnist Tony Barber had this to say in his (since-amended) column: “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. 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.”
The FT is hardly alone in feeling this way. Previous attacks on Charlie Hebdo provoked similar sentiments everywhere from Time Magazine to the White House. These beacons of civility are right, of course, that the cartoons in question are crass, insensitive, offensive, and crude. They may even be, to use an uncharitable term, stupid. But the right to be stupid in no way deviates from the right to free speech; it is the right to free speech, a radical notion that guarantees unfettered expression no matter how sophomoric or poorly considered.
Raunchy illustrations like the one of the Prophet Muhammad with his bare buttocks are the sort of stupidity civilized human beings everywhere should be able to tolerate without picking up assault rifles or firebombs. But another sort of stupidity is far more nefarious, the stupidity displayed by too many who believe that attacks like the one this morning would somehow dissipate if only we showed more decorum. Writing in the Telegraph, Padraig Reidy had it just right: “provocation,” he wrote, “is beside the point. Jihadists kill because that is what they do. It does not matter if you are a French cartoonist or a Yezidi child, or an aid worker or journalist: if you are not one of the chosen few, you are fair game. Provocation is merely an excuse used by bullies to justify their actions, while ensuring the world bows to their will.”
The first thing we can do in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, then, is to heed this wise counsel and remember that the provocation is not the point. The cartoons and whether we publish them; immigration and integration in France and whether it succeeds; American foreign policy and the impact it may have; Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians; Iraq and its war with ISIS—these are marginal questions. The only questions we ought to entertain, today and any other day, are these: what is it that we stand for, and what is it that we are willing to do to defend the values we hold dear. These are not complicated questions. Smarter men and women had bequeathed us succinct answers long ago: liberty, and whatever it takes. Before we turn to hunt the animals who shot up Charlie Hebdo this morning—as well as their funders and supporters, their foot soldiers and their ideologues, their associates and their champions and anyone else in their bloody orbit—let’s begin by making sure that we get smarter, not by fretting about the meaning of some scribbles but by clearly assessing the grave danger each of us—in Paris or in Peshawar or in Manhattan—face every day.
A previous version of this post incorrectly attributed Tony Barber’s quote to a Financial Times editorial.