The gunmen who killed 12 people in the attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo are now dead after battles with police that claimed yet more innocent victims. The world stands in solidarity with France and its media, and rightly so. Nothing justifies answering the barbs of a cartoonist’s pen with the bullets of a Kalashnikov.
But as the outrage dissolves and the mourning ends, the question will remain: What is the right relationship between free speech and a free society? Freedom of speech is never absolute. There are restrictions for hate speech, libel, state secrets, and so on. A blanket insistence on free speech at all costs is no less dogmatic than a blanket insistence on sharia law. Charlie Hebdo’s brand of satire was arguably racist and deliberately provocative. What we are defending when we defend its journalists is not their right to publish without limits, but their right not to get killed for doing it.
American graphic journalist Joe Sacco addressed this elegantly in a cartoon published on Friday. After affirming—and exercising—his right to vilify Muslims, Jews, black people, and anyone else, he wrote, “But perhaps when we tire of holding up our middle finger we can try to think about why the world is the way it is and what it is about Muslims in this time and place that makes them unable to laugh off a mere image. And if we answer, ‘Because something is deeply wrong with them’—certainly something was deeply wrong with the killers—then let us drive them from their homes and into the sea… for that is going to be far easier than sorting out how we fit in each other’s world.”