Some Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

Today, while walking past the Center for Jewish History on West 16th Street in New York, I observed four policemen with submachine guns; several other patrolmen; a patrol car; and a police dog. Unless there's some specific threat I don't know about, this strikes me as a bit of an overreaction to what happened in Paris last week. Forgive me for saying what I believe: it amounts to feeding and encouraging paranoia, at the taxpayers' expense.

Of course terrorism is heinous. It’s also spectacular  (and relatively rare and small-scale) by nature, as we commonly define it. It's a crime against innocent parties – in this case, journalists – by the weak and disorganized. Innocent, at least, of anything warranting their murders. That’s the difference between what we commonly call “terrorism” and other kinds of heinous violence, including state terrorism and violence by state-like organizations such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, or Hamas. And it’s a natural tendency to respond to spectacular crimes by overreacting, and creating or contributing to paranoiac frenzy. It's the facts that count, the bodies, the moral implications; but the words we use matter too because they  are the vehicles of argument.

Why 'paranoia'? I understand and sympathize with the French reaction; if I were French, or in France, I’d be demonstrating too. But there hasn’t been a terrorist attack on a specifically Jewish target in New York City since whenever.  That’s not to say terrorism can’t be prevented in some instances, particularly if there is advanced warning. But more generally, though likely or presumed targets can be protected, at great public expense, anyone who wants to commit acts of violence in our society (especially in our society, where automatic weapons are so readily available) can do so.

Do we call it “terrorism” when a crazy person kills dozens of high school or pre-K students? Do we even do anything about it? We do not.

Do we call it terrorism when policemen kill unarmed citizens? Do those cops ever get punished? Shouldn't every instance of violence be viewed as sui generis, and in its particular context, rather than used as fuel for an ideological fire?

There are a lot of important conversations we need to have in the wake of Charlie Hebdo and related killings by French extremists. Yes, the kosher market in Paris was clearly targeted for its Jewish clientele; not so Charlie Hebdo. And we in New York - in America - don't live amongst a seething minority of Islamic radicals. But sometimes these conversations need to be disentangled.

The first priority of all civilized people should be to bring the criminals to justice. Mowing them down with gunfire isn’t necessarily the best way to do that, or to quell the problem. They want to be martyrs, not subjects of a democratic judicial system.

Second, all speech must be free and protected, no matter how outrageous (unless of course it leads directly to injury or violence). Despite our First Amendment there are all sorts of limits on what we can say in this country. It's the outrageous and obnoxious voices that are the canaries in the mineshaft of free speech.

Third, we need satire, and some of it has to push the envelope. The worst and most dangerous kind of censorship is self-censorship. I shocked a friend recently by suggesting in the wake of Charlie Hebdo that we need more satire in this country. I didn’t mean the kind of nasty, anti-religious satire that Charlie Hebdo has engaged in. But we need a more satirical culture here, and less politically correct “respect.” (In fact, we need many cultures, many types and levels of discourse - but I digress.) The demand for  respect is too often a demand to be shielded against any kind of criticism. Too often, especially among religious zealots, the demand for respect is really a demand for special consideration or moral immunity, not just toleration. There's a huge difference. Toleration is all any of us is really entitled to in a democracy. Toleration is morally obligatory. Respect has to be earned. Immunity can never be.

Fourth, we need a healthy critical culture (not laws or fatwas) to regulate extreme, obnoxious forms of satire or commentary. Not to prevent or censor them; to criticize them.

Fifth, every crisis must be addressed in its own way, but certain principles transcend them. Supporting the right to speak doesn’t  mean supporting everything that is said. From the second-hand accounts that have reached these shores, it appears that the kinds of things Charlie Hebdo said about Islam were grotesque and irresponsible. Which obviously doesn’t justify the violence, but it’s still grotesque and irresponsible. Sixth, and perhaps most important, we need to be thoughtful enough to keep these conversations nominally separate, so that demagogues can’t use any one of them (the need for free speech, for safety, for democratic order, dignity,  anti-terrorism, satire) to obscure the others.

We need to have all of these conversations. And unless we are particularly mature critical and moral thinkers, which  most evidence suggests none of us are, we need to keep them apart. At least until  we grow up.

Originally posted on