Charlie Hebdo: Who says free speech?

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By Kenni Zellner

Where it exists, freedom of speech is a social right. Some institutions have it and some don’t, and it can exist to varying degrees (compare a prison to a university sometime). The key word here, however, is “institution,” which we’ll loosely define here as a set of rules that governs a group’s behavior and actions. Unlike natural rights—if you’re a fan of Locke, think of life, liberty, and property—social rights depend on the institution you’re a part of. In the United States, for example, the Bill of Rights establishes what rights the government confers to Americans. Are these the same rights that Chinese citizens have? No. Are these the rights that British colonists had in seventeenth century Virginia? No. Are these the rights that Americans would have in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland? One can hope, but alas, most likely no. Rights like freedom of speech are given to us as members of institutions that value justice.

Given this, why do we talk about the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in terms of freedom of speech? First of all, the Charlie Hebdo shooting was extra-legal. I don’t mean “very legal,” I mean “existing outside of the law.” (At least French law, anyway.) When word first broke out about the shooting, culprits Saïd and Chérif Kouachi looked for all the world like lone wolf Muslim extremists, lacking ties to any institution that deals with free speech. Even considering the fact that further investigation revealed links to al Qaeda, the free speech argument still remains beside the point. Freedom of speech is a right conferred by an institution to its members. Unless my knowledge of al Qaeda is very, very inaccurate, they make no promises of freedom of speech, and unless my knowledge of Charlie Hebdo is equally inaccurate, the staff had no allegiances to al Qaeda. This was clearly not a situation of an institution reneging on a right it guaranteed its members. Yet the late staff of Charlie Hebdo were part of a different institution, one that does guarantee certain rights to its members: France. The horrific attack on the Charlie Hebdo office took place in Paris, and France did its part. The city of Paris went into a state of high alert while officials searched for the gunmen.

After a three-day manhunt, security forces killed the three gunmen in a round of explosions and gunfire, and they weren’t killed because they infringed upon the freedom of speech of the Charlie Hebdo writers. The Kouachi brothers and their accomplices were killed because they murdered twelve people. Bringing freedom of speech into the discussion is as distracting as it is illogical. By publishing their work, the Charlie Hebdo office exercised the freedom of speech that France gave them, and at no point did France interfere. If they had, then we could talk about freedom of speech. If the press that prints Charlie Hebdo refused to print certain issues, then we could talk about freedom of speech. But why on earth would we talk about free speech after twelve journalists are murdered by a group of Muslim extremists? Obviously, this terrorist organization did not recognize the Charlie Hebdo staff’s right to free expression, but it’s about so much more than that.

The conversation we should be having instead is about the fact that twelve people died because they inflamed the passions of Muslim extremists with anti-Islamic cartoons. A far more substantive conversation would center on what the Kouachi brothers should have done if the Charlie Hebdo cartoons made them angry enough to go on a killing spree. Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, no matter how humiliated, disrespected, and dehumanized they felt, had no right to harm anyone, but, insofar as they felt the way they did, what would a moral response to the historically racist Charlie Hebdo publication look like? This is the conversation we should be having, because the only thing talking about freedom of speech does is either justify the death of the Charlie Hebdo writers on the grounds that their freedom of speech does not include racist cartoons, or trivialize the very real pain that Charlie Hebdo causes the Muslim community.

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