The news from Paris yesterday morning is staying with me despite the fact that every day I see and hear acts of violence, desperation, and idealism–and it needs to be said up front that these horrific acts are perpetrated by all races of people: the godless and those acting in the name of God. Terrorism is to heroism what heroism is to terrorism. With an event such as this, too many people I know fail to do a little perspective-taking before blathering bigotry and patriotism on the internet or at social gatherings (for example, check the comments of your “friends” on Facebook following the Michael Brown grand jury verdict).
You might say, well, this is their right to speak their minds. Agreed. But it occurs to me that freedom of speech comes with a fair amount of responsibility, not unlike the American right to carry a gun.
Salman Rushdie (a Muslim-turned-secularist critical of all organized religion, most famously of Islam) and his colleagues published a manifesto of sorts in 2006 in Charlie Hebdo. The decree is clearly against what it calls “Islamism”, a concept the writers equate to oppression of free thinking and free expression. Rushdie, et. al. make clear that their protest is, de facto, against any and all oppressive ideologies, not of faith itself. At its core, there is much with which to align in the work that these writers and activists have done in the name of freedom of speech (Joseph Anton gives Rushdie’s account of much of this). However, does not the use of the term “Islamism” smack of provocation, just as the series of cartoons that inspired yesterday’s attack in Paris? The writers and activists and cartoonists of whom I speak make/made their livings with words; they make/made their word choices and pen strokes carefully so as to cause a reaction, with violence a very real variable. Now those at Charlie Hebdo are martyrs for the cause of free speech…or simply purveyors of the tit-for-tat that perpetuates the mistrust and future violence–drone strikes, anyone? mall attacks, anyone?–between the Middle East and the West. Extremism is to righteous defiance what righteous defiance is to extremism.
Some may ask, if Rushdie, et. al. don’t speak/act out, who will? Couldn’t the same be said about the attackers today? Both sides see each other as the oppressor.
Perhaps this event has stuck with me because I saw a man executed on television. Again, if you watch enough television or movies, or spend enough time on the internet, you’re probably as anesthetized as most others in America. Is it true that there really is nothing shocking about death in and of itself? If this is true, why does this event affect me so much? (Admittedly, I watch my share of realistic violent movies and television; it is my feeble, insulated attempt at contemplating the extremities of human suffering for the purpose of cultivating empathy.) After seeing the actual footage of the execution of the police officer lying on the sidewalk in Paris, I noticed that the video footage was later replaced by a still-frame of the masked gunman pointing his rifle at the police officer’s head. The later omission of the video reminded me of trapped people jumping to their deaths out of the twin towers: if you were watching early enough on that September day, you saw raw footage of this; later and ever since, those moving images are harder to come by. Is this some sort of respect for the dead? Some sort of sterilizing of the actuality of the final terrible moments of a person’s life? Some sort of social responsibility exercised by the newsroom producers?
“Social responsibility” is hardly a term I would apply to much of the journalism and media out there. Nonetheless, wasn’t it a sense of “social responsibility” that drove the writers, activists, and cartoonists to do what they did? Wasn’t “social responsibility” the reason the gunmen did what they did? “Social responsibility” seems inevitably corrupted when paired with the concepts of national or religious ideology. Social responsibility, in its true sense, in its most elemental meaning, is a term that should be contemplated before taking up words or guns as weapons for righteousness.
This event touches me–a humanist–as any other event of violence should. I teach people who are affected by the acts of extremists because the acts of the extremists perpetuate a stereotype; the stereotype will propagate marginalization. I am a person who is affected by the atrocities of those individuals representing American/French/British “interests”(see CIA; see reasons for radicalization); the brutalities will propagate global mistrust of me, many of my friends, and my family.
While reading background of the events and individuals involved in yesterday’s attack, I came across an article that distills the crux of the problem: hypocrisy. The article describes how anti-Semitic books are openly sold in the streets of Cairo, a place in the center of the Islamic world, the Islamic world that expects everyone in the entire world not to depict the Prophet. I was always taught that if you want respect, you have to give respect. By that same token, why do some Christians–the ones whose religion is named after a man who preached acceptance of all people–ostracize so many members of the global society? In the end, doesn’t the duality of human nature lead us to believe that human nature will never change?