Nothing justifies slaughtering a bunch of cartoonists and editors, or police officers trying to save lives. Let’s get that essential, should-be-obvious truth out of the way first and foremost.
Though some prominent people like Glenn Greenwald and the writers at the leftist Jacobin magazine found Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons to be from distasteful to downright racist, no one is saying the French satirists deserved this monstrous assassination. There is something fundamentally (pun intended) terrifying about killing people over words and images.
Yet, there’s something frustrating about the response to the tragic murders in Paris on Wednesday. This is because the miserable muck that is the war on terror reminds us, as do all wars, that some animals are more equal than others. In the face of this disturbing crime, it would be nice to feel rallied towards civil liberties, and freedom of speech. Rallied towards not living on your knees, as the late editor Stéphane Charbonnier said he would do even after the Charlie Hebdo offices were bombed in 2011. But it isn’t that simple.
The perpetrators of the Paris attack – now identified, with one in custody – should be found and brought to justice. But oh, If only one could depend on a narrowness of response – that only the terrorists responsible would be punished for every attack, and no freedoms, no domestic privacy or rights would be sacrificed; no innocent Muslims or their houses of worship assaulted or oppressed, and no civilians would be caught in any crossfire of any ensuing international effort.
And if one could also depend upon a fullness of indignation. Yes, the right to free speech is a vital human one. Striking down communicators of ideas simply for their cheeky refusal to be cowed is horrifying. It would just be nice if striking down people who happened to live in the wrong country was just as outrageous to anyone beyond half a dozen antiwar activists. It would be nice if we needed to wait a little longer for the familiar equating of understanding blowback and sympathizing with terrorist attacks.
There is a difference between terrorism and war. Terrorism generally admits what it is, and what it intends to do – kill for a goal. War hides its face and says it doesn’t count as killing, that deaths are merely a sad side effect for a legitimate political or strategic end.
Freedom of speech is incredibly important. It is more important than most European nations realize, considering that they think it is secondary to not denying the Holocaust, or "inciting" various hatreds against protected groups (or, you know, not wearing religious clothing or symbols, as in the oppressively secular France).
Punishing cartoonists for the crimes of the west is evil. Nobody who values any kind of freedom wants any advocates for ISIS or Taliban-style madness to "win" at anything. There are people who seriously dislike music, free speech, and all the delightful things that make life worthwhile. Living under them would be a miserable experience. But being glad that the Nazis and Imperial Japan lost World War II shouldn’t end the conversation about saturation bombing of cities, and other horrific acts that came from the Allies. And hoping for the demise of ISIS or the Taliban says nothing about the moral or practical goodness of having a "war on terror."
But we have one, and the enemy is not motivated only by religious fervor. Terrorists often have a smorgasbord of outrages, which include both the west’s imaginary cultural crimes of expression, and real ones of war-making and occupation. See Bin Laden comma Osama for proof that terrorists are rarely coy about why they’re pissed. The west’s impropriety is mentioned in his list of grievances, but religious prudity is seriously outweighed by mentions of occupation and bombing, and disturbingly on-point accusations of hypocrisy. (Terrorists are bad, and terrorists are sometimes eerily aware of how the world works.)
Was it just the cartoons that enraged these men into a massacre? Academic Juan Cole offers a compelling argument on the practical reasons a terrorist might want to go after Charlie Hebdo. In short, in order to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash which could eventually engender French Muslim sympathy for fundamentalist causes. And one of the suspects who is still on the run – and was previously tried with terrorism – said that the US torture at Abu Ghraib prison radicalized him. That’s not as stirring for civil libertarians as "freedom of expression must be defended!", now is it?
By virtue of US and western foreign policy, nasty people are given a legitimate anger and rallying cry. Religion is there in the mix, certainly. However, we don’t know the piety and sincerity involved in these kinds of attacks, simply because the politics are impossible to separate from the religion at every level. We do know that ignoring the political reasons for blowback does nothing to solve the problem of terrorism.
What we also know is that most people moved by this crime in Paris will not spend precious time thinking about other bloodbaths caused by other, more legitimized hands. Drones, bombs, or boots on the ground; destabilizing and collapsing nations; causing civil wars. What can’t be excused, that is, as long as western enlightenment ideals were somewhere vaguely near the back of the motivation? Sometimes it feels like we only love free speech and other ideals enough to kill over them.
It does feel cheap and horrible to use the deaths of innocent writers and cartoonists as a soapbox to ask why nobody cares about other deaths. It diminishes individual lives – but so does war.
It should be said every single day that noble, enlightenment ideals or not, the Charlie Hebdo staff, 9/11 victims, or anyone else were not worth more than other victims of officially sanctioned, man-made tragedies. They were just as worthwhile. Yet, they will be remembered as if they were more precious than anyone killed by US or western intervention, or the wars such actions spawned. Maybe this week is not the time to make such comparisons, except it is never the time to talk about the blood spilled by the good guys in the war on terror – or the blowback it makes.
We should stop ranking losses, and we should only say that the Charlie Hebdo staff and the police officers killed matter just as much as every innocent person killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, or Pakistan. Tragically – especially in America – that’s a radical statement to make.