The free speech/terrorism conundrum

We defend to the death our freedom of speech but what if that freedom leads to terrorist acts that kill innocent people?

The rights we fought to have over centuries are worth protecting: but what if they feed terrorism?

An interesting trial is about to open this week in France. It will cover those responsible for the 2015 ‘Charlie Hebdo’ terrorist attacks in which twelve people were killed by the brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi over the journal’s decision to publish the ‘Muhammad cartoons’ (images deemed offensive by some). The brothers were in turn killed by French police and it is their accomplices who will stand trial.

In response, Charlie Hebdo has decided to re-run the cartoons. In other words, it will publish – again – the images which led to the brutal deaths of a dozen of its staff five years ago. It stands to reason that this act will enrage quite a number of people – again – and could lead to yet another terrorist attack.

The question is: is this worth it?

”We will never lie down. We will never give up.” Charlie Hebdo director Laurent “Riss” Sourisseau

I certainly agree that the freedoms we enjoy in the West (primarily the West but also in select parts of the rest of the world) are worth protecting and justifying. After all, the converse of what we have – censorship etc. – is not good and is all too common in many nations. Furthermore, people have died to allow us to have these rights and benefits (e.g. Giordano Bruno, a 16th century Italian who was burned at the stake for going against the Vatican’s erroneous views on the structure of the universe).

And I think we cannot and must not dial back those freedoms in the face of threats from those who disagree with our views and seek to stop us from having them. That is clearly blackmail and we all know that if we give in to blackmail once those who use it will continue to do so. If blackmailers see their efforts as successful, why would they stop using them?


And yet I find myself strangely conflicted on the Charlie Hebdo actions. Allow me to try to present both sides of this issue, with the full realisation that I may do so poorly and unconvincingly.

Yes, the French newspaper has every right to publish whatever its owners choose to (provided it does not violate French laws I would imagine) and the cartoons that came out a few years back are very tame in all honesty (I have seen much worse). We no longer kowtow to the Vatican, or any other religious authority, real or self-styled, and Islamist terrorists do see themselves as the only arbiters of Islam. Thank god (pun intended!) for our evolution when it comes to removing the yoke of overbearing religious doctrine!

Furthermore, if we are cowed into not doing something at the behest of a terrorist group we are in effect doing several things at once:

  • we are surrendering to a group that uses violence to get its way;
  • we are giving terrorists much more attention than they deserve;
  • we encourage other terrorist groups to do the same; and
  • we lose a little bit of ourselves and chip away at the aforementioned hard-won freedoms.

On the other hand (yes, there is ALWAYS an other hand), this decision could very likely lead to another terrorist attack by an Islamist extremist bunch which wants to punish us for our ‘blasphemy’. Innocent people, perhaps who have nothing to do with Charlie Hebdo or the cartoons, could be killed and/or seriously wounded. And to what end? They did not ask to be part of this struggle, and yet they do enjoy the freedoms we all do.

Do you see the conundrum here?

In order to stand for what we believe in against the forces of hate and intolerance some will die. This is not the same as choosing to die for a principle, as Giordano Bruno did. The unfortunate victims of a suicide bombing are not necessarily representative of the ‘slight’ that so pisses off the terrorists (unlike the office workers at Charlie Hebdo: NB this is NOT a justification for the attack that killed them in any way, shape, or form and should not be construed as such).

You could say that Charlie Hebdo made its point in 2015 and does not really need to make it again. Yet, if we value our freedoms we must always defend them, no? If we do not, those who dislike them will chip away slowly and we will eventually find ourselves in a position where the values we espouse are no longer present.

In the end I want to underscore that I am not an advocate of censorship or holding fire on a topic just because it COULD lead to an act of terrorism from those who seek to undermine our freedoms. Maybe this is all part and parcel of what it takes to safeguard them. But, would you want to be the one to explain to a grieving parent/child that their loved one died in the aftermath of the decision by someone to take action they claimed was their right to do so? I sure wouldn’t.

More about ‘Charlie Hebdo’

    By Phil Gurski

    Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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