The murderous attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that killed ten journalists and two police once again illustrates the danger of the idea that anything should be exempt from examination, satire, even ridicule. The murderers are purported to have said that they were avenging their prophet in retaliation for the various articles and cartoons that the magazine has published over recent years that lampooned prophet Mohammed.
The magazine has a history of skewering all religions and all manner of sacred cows and remained defiant even after a bomb attack on its offices in 2011.
While the murderers must be sought and punished, what we should not do is to overreact out of fear, hysteria, and paranoia because that is the broader goal of such murderous groups. As Simon Jenkins says:
Osama bin Laden’s attacks on the United States, culminating in New York in 2001, were exceptional. Since he could not hope for an American capitulation, the intention must have been to scare the US into a hysterical reaction. As a result, all advice at the time was for America not to universalise its response to 9/11, let alone characterise it as a “war”. This would merely fuel the flames of horror, and lead on to God knows where. As Tom Paine warned: “Sanguinary punishment corrupts humankind.”
That advice was ignored, and years of war ensued, years that realised al-Qaida’s wildest dreams. Western nations plunged into battle, at a cost of some $3tn. Thousands of lives were lost and regimes were destabilised across the region. Democratic governments lurched towards authoritarianism. Almost willingly, it seemed, governments tore up many of the central tenets of their liberties. In the more belligerent states – the US and Britain – habeas corpus, private communication, legal process and even freedom of speech were curtailed or jeopardised. The forces of state repression suddenly found themselves singing the best tunes.
This monstrous attack should serve to arouse worldwide public opinion against the idea that religious beliefs, or any beliefs for that matter, should be exempt from satire or ridicule. This attack will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on media unless there is a concerted and global agreement among them that any attempt to suppress any particular view by threats of force will result in all the media replicating the offending material. This institutionalization of what is essentially the Streisand Effect may reduce the risk for any individual publication or journalist by creating too many targets but I don’t know if enough people will agree to create such a compact.