|Calligraphy by Stephanie Shapiro|
Journalists are very fortunate in this country. We can write what we please, without fear that somebody is going to come around and kill us. Some nasty remarks from disgruntled cops, some noxious posts by Right Wing haters, but nothing that can't be shaken off with a shiver, like a dog coming in from the rain.
But the slaughter of 12 staffers of Charlie Hebdo, a French satiric newspaper, reminds us how precious that is, how threatened. How history is dominated by the brutal and the powerful crushing those who question or laugh at them. Or, in this case, the armed and the fanatical, trying to.
You know why they do it. It's hard to be ridiculed. To have your most cherished beliefs held up for mockery. The intelligent person examines the scorn and satire directed his way, roots around in the mess for what kernels of truth may be, and tries to learn from those. None of us is perfect, no belief system without flaws.
The fanatic doesn't have that option. When you can't examine your own beliefs, the only outlet is to attempt to silence those questioning you. Just a few days ago a Chicago cop started demanding online, in posts and tweets brandishing images of his badge, that I apologize for something I said about the police. I saw his efforts, shrugged, and thought, "I don't have to ask permission from the Chicago Police Department to say what I think, nor do I have to apologize to them when I do." What I said was true, and even if it weren't, that's what freedom is, a cacophony of voices, some respectful, some irreverent, some false, some true. In a democracy, we respect citizens enough to let them sort it out. Some of us do, anyway. Some haven't gotten the memo, or refuse to read it, or have read it but can't quite grasp the concept. Free speech is great for them. For others, it's just blasphemy.
A shame. Free speech makes you strong. It creates a world where ideas thrive because they work, not because those who would point out the flaws are beaten down. Fanatics who must gag opposing thoughts, inspired by their supposedly powerful faith, ironically have less faith, in themselves, in what they believe. Otherwise, why couldn't they trust their ideas to succeed on their own merits? Terrorist outrages like the one in France are, in essence, expressions of weakness, of doubt. My God—or at least God as I would envision Him—is a powerful God, not undercut by cartoons. You would think that would be an easy position for anyone of faith to embrace. Alas, it is not.
The purpose of these crimes is to instill fear, the fear they already feel, terror of life, of otherness. We should react the opposite: by renewing our courage, our belief in the redemptive power and beauty of free speech. These terrorists do not represent a faith, they do not represent a philosophy. They are ragged stragglers fighting for a cause that has already lost, long ago.