Charlie Hebdo

I have only a brief comment on the murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

I worry that there may be something unseemly in the haste with which commentators and demonstrators have politicized the event, taking up the particular deaths of twelve particular human beings as symbols for this or that cause, or as the means for scoring points against hated enemies, but in any case as abstractions.

“They attacked our freedom!”

“See? I told you Islam was violent!”

Of the particularities of those twelve lives I really can’t say much, other than what I might read about them in news sources or the personal accounts of others, but doesn’t it do a further kind of violence to so lose them in abstractions?

On a related point, many commentators and demonstrators seem to be focusing entirely on the issue of free speech: the editors, writers and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, the argument goes, had a right to express themselves as they wished, even if others found their work offensive; the attack was (presumably) carried out for the purpose of either punishing past expression deemed offensive by a particular group or preventing further such expression.

What gets lost in this is the understanding that, even if those involved did not have a right to publish what they published, it could still be argued that they had a right not to be killed.

I don’t wish to get into the debate over whether and when freedom of speech may appropriately be limited. My own inclination would be to say those at Charlie Hebdo were within their rights, even if what they published could be deemed harmful and imprudent.

My only point is that the two questions – freedom of speech and the value of life – are distinct.

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