Under the banner headline “War on Freedom” today’s paper recounts yesterday’s murderous assault on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Shock, outrage and fear fill the pages. An attack on a satirical magazine’s offices is equated with an attack on the freedom of speech, and thus an attack on democracy. Without supporting the terrorists, nor diminishing the sadness, I do think that we need to maintain a sense of proportion.
The first and most important point is simple; the attack failed. Yes, it killed some of the Charlie Hebdo staff; but, as anyone on Facebook could see by the plethora of people changing their picture to “Je Suis Charlie,” the attack actually achieved the direct opposite of what it is thought that it sought to achieve as pretty much everyone in the liberal world flicked extreme Islam a V sign. At a societal level the pen is mightier than the sword; you can’t defeat ideas with a Kalashnikov.
If the jihadists are indeed planning a “War of Freedom” then they have lost before they have begun. So I am not worried about that, and neither should anyone else be.
Some correspondents were surprised at the callous efficiency of the attack. Why? Terrorists train and learn from experience, just as soldiers do. Planning an armed attack on an undefended office doesn’t need a Rommel. Of course the policeman was killed. He represented a threat to the operation and from the moment it launched his chances of survival were about as high as (say) a sentry at an Afghan warlord’s compound. Like all combat, terrorism is a highly Darwinian environment in which the incompetent, idle and unprofessional die – those who learn and adapt survive. Given the near constant battles between Jihadists and Western military for the past two decades it should surprise no one that there are some competent terrorists about the place. However that is not worth getting worried about unless you place yourself at risk.
So who is at risk? The chances of the average person being a victim of a terrorist attack are immeasurably small. More people were killed on the roads as a result of the post 9/11 flight ban than were actually on the planes used in the attacks themselves.
Obviously state institutions, the police and the military. But here in the UK we have been there before courtesy of the Ulster troubles. State institutions are well protected, and their workers are aware of the threats to their personal security. Throughout my military service like every other soldier (there were 150,000 of us back then) I had to check my car for bombs every time it was parked outside of a secure area. It was a minor inconvenience, but that is all. The savage machete attack on Drummer Rigby remains a rarity and most of the shock comes from the barbarism, not the fact that an off duty soldier was attacked. Again, the IRA has hardened us to expect that.
It can’t be a surprise that satirists are a target; remember Salman Rushdie and the Satanic Verses? That was back in 1989 so the perils of insulting Islam are well known. Charlie Hebdo chose to run the risks and sadly the consequences have caught up with them. Is it right that they should have been so violently attacked? Of course not; but that does not make it a shock. The nature of satire is that it is likely to generate retribution – Private Eye has spent a lot of time in court and paid a lot of its publishers’ money in damages over the years. Given that blasphemy is no longer unlawful and the general disdain of Islamic extremists for due process and the rule of law an attack of some sort was surely inevitable.
Which leads to the whole concept of press freedom. In most liberal democracies the press are free to print what they like. However if they defame (or, in the UK until 2008, blaspheme) they then are vulnerable to legal actions for damages. Note that these actions are not of themselves an attack on free speech – the free speaking has already happened. They are rather the redress against journalists and editors who abuse their right of free speech by publishing falsehoods.
To make a narrow but important point, the fatwa on Salmon Rushdie was not an attack on his right to publish The Satanic Verses (which had already happened). It was an attempt to seek retribution for what was perceived as the crime of blasphemy. Yesterday’s attack was not seeking to prevent Charlie Hebdo publishing what they had already published. The assault would have been a direct attack on free speech only if the perpetrators had knowledge of a forthcoming article and were seeking to prevent it being written. Even then one could argue that it was no more an attack on freedom of speech than the use of a super injunction in the UK.
Of course there is an element of intimidation in redress; insulting litigious corporations or individuals can cost the press a lot of money and certain individuals can lose their jobs whereas insulting Islam may get you summarily executed. Some journalists may therefore now prefer to take their chances investigating commenting upon subjects other than Islam as a result of this action, rather than the threats. However threats of violent retribution against investigative journalists are not exactly unknown, so although the increased perceived threat of violence may be an attack on free speech it is not entirely new.
Were I a satirist contemplating another parody of Islamic idiocy my first question would be am I actually doing something new? Is there a new angle, revelation or hypocrisy that my piece will produce? If so, is it worth the risk (and have I taken sufficient measures to protect myself from that risk)? If not, then is there a more worthy target of my satire?
Of course, the ultimate irony is that this assault has proved yet again and beyond all doubt that the extreme Islamists’ cause is doomed. There is little that a Jihadist could have done to provoke a more dramatic repudiation of everything that he stands for.
But then we knew that after 9/11 didn’t stop the USA, and were reminded when the July bombs in London failed to bring the city to a halt. Similar attacks all over Europe, Africa and Asia have all achieved nothing beyond creating widows and orphans and spreading grief. There is no popular support for them anywhere. Their agenda is as doomed as that of any other failed terrorist organisation, such as the IRA or Bader-Meinhof.
We need to stop being frightened (if we were) and realise that we have already won the argument and the war. We now have to deal with a lot of deluded, dangerous fools who have become such a parody of the tenets of their professed religion that they are beyond satire. Reducing their limited ability to intrude on most of our lives is simply a matter of police work. The Islamic community can speed this if they chose to.
Lampoon them if you must, but there are targets more worthy of Charlie Hebdo’s wit than a collection of idiotic, deluded, murderous, jihadist losers.