Charlie Hebdo, free speech, and terrorism

I am certain that everyone is familiar with the horrible events that have unfolded in the last week in Paris, France.  In short: on January 7, 2015 several cartoonists & staff members of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, as well as several police officers, were murdered by militant Islamic terrorists.

I was not intending to write anything about this tragedy.  But there has been , inevitably, a huge amount of debate across mass media, including the internet.  This caused me to finally put my thoughts down.

There is a line of reasoning among certain people that the creators at Charlie Hebdo were somehow at least partially responsible for causing their own murders.  By publishing cartoons & illustrations that were inflammatory towards Islam and that certain members of that faith found sacrilegious & offensive, these cartoonists recklessly created the resentment that led to their deaths.  Or, worse yet, Charlie Hebdo’s creators were far-right racists and Islamophobes, and that they got what was coming to them.

I definitely do not agree with any of this.  I find this type of rationale to be grotesque, the worst example of blaming the victims.  Innocent people were murdered; there is no justification.

Free speech is one of the cornerstones upon which our society was founded.  The free & unrestrained exchange of ideas is the vital lifeblood of freedom.  And that means that, inevitably, there is always going to be something said by somebody that is going to offend somebody else.  As others have observed over the last week, we do not possess the right to not be offended.

I have to be honest: I am not familiar with the work that Charlie Hebdo presented.  From what I understand, they are an extremely irreverent publication that is deliberately provocative.  However, it appears that their harsh satire is directed towards the entire spectrum of religion and politics, and not just at Islam in particular.  I am sure that over the years they offended a great many people from very diverse backgrounds.

Truthfully, Charlie Hebdo doesn’t even sound like my type of humor, and I doubt it is the sort of thing I would read.  But I can understand how their brand of satire would appeal to others.

Yes, it is absolutely true that free speech does not exist in a vacuum; it has consequences.  One cannot simple say whatever they want and then be upset if others vehemently disagree with them.  But there is an appropriate manner in which to do so.

A reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre by cartoonist David Pope
A reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre by cartoonist David Pope

Obviously certain people were extremely offended by Charlie Hebdo’s commentary on the Islamic faith.  There are a number of reasonable ways in which these individuals could have responded.  They could have boycotted the magazine.  They could have written angry letters to the editors & publisher.  They could have picketed outside the offices of the magazine.  They could have gone on television or created their own publication to air their grievances.  They could have organized like-minded people to march through the streets of Paris in protest.  All of these are rational responses; murder and terrorism are not.

Look, there is plenty that offends me.  I find the contents of Fox News and the New York Post to be racist, sexist, homophobic, inflammatory, partisan distortions of the truth.  Whenever possible I avoid them like the plague.  While I do read the Daily News because it is more aligned to my sensibilities, even then I find certain of the pieces in that newspaper to be insulting or ignorant.  I once commended on Facebook that “You don’t have to be a reactionary douchebag to get a letter to the editor published in the Daily News… but it helps.”

Yes, there are certainly occasions where I have been less than open-minded.  Plenty of times I have viewed or read something that offended me and my immediate reaction was “Why doesn’t that asshole just shut the fuck up?!?”  But you know what?  Ideally, given a few moments to think things over, I might eventually attempt to consider whether the opinions being presented could actually have any validity to them, to try to understand where that person is coming from. (Yes, usually I do end up concluding that person is full of shit, but at least I try to be open-minded.)

Not once have I gone out and shot anybody whose opinion I disagreed with.

It is not known if the 18th Century French philosopher Voltaire actually said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  Whether he did or not, he certainly believed in those sentiments.  However, in his 1763 book Treatise on Tolerance he wrote:

“The supposed right of intolerance is absurd and barbaric. It is the right of the tiger; nay, it is far worse, for tigers do but tear in order to have food, while we rend each other for paragraphs.”

Voltaire’s words are certainly as applicable today as they were 252 years ago.  Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are difficult; they require us to allow others to express beliefs that we may find abhorrent, and to respond in a rational manner.  But without that we become willfully ignorant creatures who violently lash out at all who would differ with us.  Any kind of free & civilized society cannot exist under such circumstances.

Capital punishment and the September 11th trial

There was an interesting article in the New York Post on May 14th (I don’t normally read the Post, since I think it’s a sensationalistic rag full of right wing propaganda, but a co-worker of mine buys it for the Sports section, so I occasionally glance through his copy when I’m bored).  The headline read “Husband of 9/11 victim goes to Gitmo to spare plotters from death sentence.”

On September 11, 2001 Blake Allison lost his wife Anna in the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center.  Mr. Allison has a long-held opposition to the death penalty.  Despite his deeply tragic loss, he has chosen adhere to those principles.  He has traveled to Guantanamo Bay to ask the military tribunal to spare the lives of the al-Qaeda conspirators who are on trial.

Keep in mind, Allison is under no illusions that the six defendants now indicted as the 9/11 masterminds have in any way reformed or will ever express remorse.  He recognizes that they are extremely dangerous fanatics who would repeat their actions in a heartbeat.  He very much wishes to see them brought to justice for their crimes.  But he feels that it is wrong to take another human being’s life, and that the terrorists should instead be sentenced to life in prison without any possibility of parole.

I have long been opposed to capital punishment.  This has not been out of any particular sympathy for convicted murderers.  Rather, my opposition is two-fold:

First, I believe that a close examination will reveal that there are deep flaws in the criminal justice system that have led to numerous individuals who were innocent being falsely convicted and sentenced to death.  It was only through lengthy appeals that the majority of these injustices have come to light.  And we have no way of knowing with complete certainty that not a single innocent person has ever been executed in the United States.

Second, the aforementioned appeals process is expensive and time-consuming, a waste of taxpayer money and court resources.  Some might argue that the simplest solution is to eliminate all of those costly appeals.  But doing that leads right back to the first problem, namely that innocent people are sometimes convicted of crimes they did not commit.  And without appeals, these errors would most likely never be uncovered.

Capital punishment is irreversible.  If a mistake is made, it is impossible to return a person to life once their innocence is established two or three decades later.  No, they are obviously gone for good.  That is, in my mind, a very good reason to abolish the death penalty.

But can you make an exception?  What if a crime is so horribly depraved, the guilt of the defendant established beyond a shadow of a doubt, the gleeful lack of remorse on the part of the criminal an absolute affront to society?  What then?

It is a virtual certainty that Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his co-defendants are guilty of planning the terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of nearly three thousand innocent people.  They have never denied it, instead embracing their horrible crimes.  They have asked to be executed, to be made martyrs to their twisted cause.  One could easily make a passionate, compelling argument that if anyone in this world deserves to die, it is these men.

I keep thinking, though, that once you make one exception, you slowly but surely start edging towards the proverbial slippery slope.  Where do you draw the line, define the point when a crime becomes so horrible that the culprit is deserving of the death penalty?  Is it even possible to make that distinction?

I recall when Timothy McVeigh was executed in June 2001, for carrying out the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, murdering 168 people.  On the one hand, I certainly did not mourn his death.  On the other, I could not help but wonder if it might have been better to have given him a life sentence, because of that aforementioned slippery slope.  In addition, when you think about it, to have left him to live out the rest of his days in a tiny cell, never again to know freedom is, in a way, a fate that can be seen as a fate worse than death.

Some might also argue that we should not extend any sort of mercy to the terrorists who are on trial because, if the tables were turned, they would gladly see us dead without a second thought.  I keep thinking, though, that it is not enough merely to defeat an enemy.  We also must show that we are better them them, that we aspire to higher moral standards.

Another question to ponder, and it has already been raised by others: by executing Khalid Sheik Mohammed and his associates, are we not giving them what they want, turning them into martyrs whose deaths will emblazon their followers throughout the globe?  Perhaps it is better to give them a life sentence in a maximum security prison.  That way, they are deprived of their freedom for the rest of their natural lives, society is protected from them, and they are denied the chance to posthumously rally supporters to their cause.

All of that said, I do have to acknowledge one thing, though.  I really admire Blake Allison for maintaining his stance against the death penalty even after the horrible loss of his wife.  It could have been so very easy for him to give in to grief and hate.  So I honestly cannot say how I myself would feel, how much my opinion on capital punishment might change, if someone close to me was murdered.  There but for the grace of God go I.