19 September 2012
More tough guys mock Muslims
French diplomatic facilities in the Muslim world are on alert today after the satirical weekly paper Charlie Hebdo published a new set of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. The paper, which seems to be an equal-opportunity offender, has already been sued, hacked, and denounced by French politicians. Its pseudonymous editor (it's a tradition there) casts defiance all around and refuses responsibility for any violence that may follow. "I'm not the one going into the streets with stones and Kalashnikovs," he says. And that got me thinking. As I've argued before, the "rights" we enshrine in fundamental law are guarantees of immunity. While they promise implicitly that people won't be prevented from doing certain things, the effective promise is that people won't be punished for doing them. A truly free person will do what he pleases without fear of punishment, while a free society is one where he is free from punishment for certain acts. "I live under French law," the Charlie Hebdo editor says, "I don't live under Quranic law." By this, I presume, he means that he expects protection from the French state against Islamist retribution. From a western, secularist perspective this sounds perfectly reasonable. But how respectable is it? Just for the sake of arguments, let's ask what obligation rests on people, the vast majority of whom have no urge to insult Islam or any religion, to risk themselves in any way to protect those who have such urges and act on them. There should be some obligation of that sort in a civil society, just as we might expect the editor and other opinionators to defend those rights or interests of fellow citizens in which they have no immediate personal stake. But should that obligation be unconditional? Can someone invoke "freedom of the press" or "freedom of speech" to compel us to his defense for having said or published anything? The stakes differ, obviously, depending on whom you offend, but Muslims are not the only people in history ever to attack the media to avenge blasphemy or other provocations. Before and during the Civil War, newspapers were attacked by mobs for advocating the abolition of slavery in a manner deemed provocative if not treasonous by angry readers. We're probably more ready to assume that those editors and publishers deserved more protection from the state, if not the people, than they received. A free society must accommodate provocation and cannot concede a right of anyone not to be provoked. We can affirm that while still wondering about such tough guys as the makers of "Innocence of Muslims" and the publishers of Charlie Hebdo who certainly see themselves as heroes while plainly resenting the risk involved in such heroism. The French paper, at least, is closer to the front lines, having been firebombed (without casualties) after a similar provocation last year. Still, something about the editor's statement rankled me, and I don't think that was because something was lost in translation. "I'm not the one going into the streets," he said -- by which he meant that he wasn't throwing stones or shooting anyone and therefore shouldn't be held responsible for those stoned or shot. I agree. But when someone goes into the street with stones and guns, someone else has to go into the streets to stop them. In a free society, Charlie Hebdo has a right to expect that hirelings of the state will protect him. But if the editor is a free man, as I'm sure he sees himself, shouldn't he feel some personal responsibility to protect his own prerogatives? The French may not equate "personal responsibility" with "liberty" as obsessively as some Americans do, but my point has less to do with any nation's politics or ideology than with what it means to be a free person as well as a citizen of a free society. In the same spirit of provocation in which the paper published its cartoons, I acknowledge the editor's disclaimer that he doesn't go into the streets with Kalashnikovs, and answer: why doesn't he?