It was a tragic event when, a few months back, some cartoonists and editors were shot in Paris by angry young gunmen. The general consensus is that these valiant defenders of freedom of speech were gunned down by Muslim extremists hell-bent on forcing everyone to live under sharia law. I wrote about this topic before: https://wavesandmeans.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/satire-vs-reinforcing-heirarchy-or-charlie-hebdo-gets-charlie-hebdoed/
Well, now PEN has decided to give these crusaders an award, which has generated some controversy:
I posit that if Charlie Hebdo is being honored with an award because its writers and editors are supposedly martyrs to the cause of free speech, then the award should be shared with Anwar al-Awlaki, who was also hunted down and killed in cold blood, simply for exercising free speech. (We took out his son, too, just to show how cold blood can run, apparently.)
Charlie Hebdo’s lazy racism and Islamophobia should not have resulted in anyone’s deaths. The idea that they were engaged in a valiant struggle against oppressive censorship is, however, ludicrous. Some say that their offensively anti-Muslim cartoons are misunderstood by Americans who are too simple-minded to grasp the intricacies of French humor. If that is true, why were so many French-speaking Muslims offended by the cartoons? Surely their French is good enough, many of them having grown up in France. The thing with the Hebdo massacre and the unrelated proclamations of the sanctity of “free speech” is that government censors did not kill the Charlie Hebdo staff. Angry young men that were likely looking for a target for their rage, chose Charlie Hebdo, most likely because they made themselves targets. No, they did not deserve to be killed, and no one is arguing that. The thing is, sometimes people snap and shoot a bunch of people. When Muslims do it, suddenly we are to assume that they are part of a global movement trying to violently force us into living under sharia law, despite how little evidence there is that most Muslims would prefer honor killings and mandated head scarves to watching Saturday Night Live and eating French Fries. When Americans snap and shoot a bunch of people, we don’t read a litany of analyses claiming Christianity led the gunman to become radicalized, even when it clearly did: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/06/us/shooting-reported-at-temple-in-wisconsin.html?_r=0
School shootings are not framed as a struggle for free speech on the part of bullies in a high school. Did bullying push a student with easy access to firearms so far over the edge that he shot some classmates? Wait! What about the bully’s free speech? Shouldn’t he be allowed to torment and belittle other students that are weaker than him without fear of reprisal? He’s just a crusader fighting for freedom of speech, after all.
The reason we don’t pretend that school shooters are a threat to free speech is because they are not sponsored by the government. That’s also the reason that freedom of speech was not the issue with the Charlie Hebdo shooting. No apparatus of the French government was attempting to prevent the writers and editors there from publishing violently anti-Muslim cartoons. To anyone not trying to take the event out of context in a backhanded attempt to justify our continued slaughter of people in Arab countries, the magazine covers seem to celebrate and even encourage violence against Muslims. Attacking minorities may be within the paper’s rights, but it’s a very irresponsible use of speech. It’s especially irresponsible when the country has problems absorbing its growing immigrant population http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/8197895/Marine-Le-Pen-Muslims-in-France-like-Nazi-occupation.html
A Hebdo cartoon celebrating atrocities committed against Muslims in Egypt by a US-backed military dictatorship:
Anwar al-Awlaki (and his son, and some bystanders) were killed by state-sponsored violence for exercising their freedom of speech. Because the things al-Awlaki said were considered “dangerous” by our government, he was executed without trial, and so was his son, apparently just in case his progeny might attempt to seek justice for his father in the future. Now, maybe the things that al-Awlaki said were disgusting and could be construed as encouraging violence. Does that mean he deserved to be blown up by a robot? Our government literally declared his free speech a crime and killed him for it. No government tried to take the lives of the Charlie Hebdo staff because they used free speech to celebrate and encourage violence.
And here lies the primary difference: who the target of the speech was.
When French cartoonists encourage violence against Muslims, it’s OK, because we’re supposed to hate and fear Muslims while accepting our government’s continued butchering of them. If some random lunatics attack those people, it’s problematic, because you’re not supposed to get hurt if you tow the party line of the military-industrial complex and its endless war mentality. Now we have to create all this clash-of-civilizations nonsense to justify the thousands of people we are about to murder in the home countries of the Hebdo shooters, thousands more people than were killed in the Hebdo offices, if proportion matters in cases like this. The anti-Muslim sentiment that Western media glommed onto after the attack certainly served its purpose domestically, as anti-Muslim violence in France spiked following the attack: http://rt.com/news/221995-france-anti-muslim-incidents/
When American-born Muslim clerics preach violence against a nation that has consistently terrorized their people with war, torture, support of dictators, sanctions, and a host of other unpleasantries, those clerics deserve to be murdered because they targeted someone bigger and more powerful than they are. The controversy around al-Awlaki’s killing, though, has mostly focused on whether due-process was followed, whether it was fair to execute him without a trial, not on whether it is OK to blow people up in other parts of the world for saying things we disagree with.
Al-Awlaki was killed by a government obsessed with preventing people like him from expressing their freedom of speech. The Charlie Hebdo writers were killed by angry young men that were unlikely part of any broader movement, but that were looking for a target for their anger, much the same way countless mass shooters in the United States have found targets for their rage, regardless of religious affiliation. If Charlie Hebdo is going to receive a posthumous free speech award for dying after encouraging violence, then so should Anwar al-Awlaki and his son.