observations and opinion
why it might be right NOT to publish those pictures
The victims of terror – including journalists – are never at fault for being attacked. The moral responsibility rests only on those who commit or abet the crimes. And we must NEVER blame media outlets for publishing freely content which might incite evil conduct. The evil is in what men do in response.
But it seems unfair to castigate media outlets who won’t publish some things. Those who shy away from offending or inviting terror to the door. Organizations are responsible for protecting their people – people armed only with pens, pencils and keyboards. Things are not as simple as they feel.
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January 8, 2015
In the flood of tears and anger following the Charlie Hebdo massacre of January 7th, the world’s conversation has turned to the question of free speech. Although their motive is not yet proven, the murderers’ words and deeds (“avenging” the Prophet and selecting victims associates with cartoons of Allah) drives us all to believe that the massacre was meant to punish offensive speech.
This morning and forever, the Charlie Hebdo massacre will be understood as a battle in the ongoing war to preserve our civilization – the liberty our forebears fought and died for, being defended again by a new kind of soldier: in this case journalists. In the last year journalists have been too numerous as casualties in this war, usually near the front line but this week, right at home in what was hoped to be safe ground – a newspaper office. The people of Charlie Hebdo were, indeed, soldiers for liberty, not just victims.
As an ardent exponent of free speech, my every instinct is to cry out for our own vengeance, by publishing and encouraging others to publish, the drawings which induced these evil toads to act so monstrously. I am offended to the boiling point by the idea that our free press, which we need to survive as free people, might suppress images to avoid “offending” people who, if “offended” might commit acts of violence. Such suppression, such silence is truly, to quote the trite phrase, “letting the terrorists win.”
So it is encouraging to see the great outburst of social media comment, editorializing and discussion reminding us of how precious our free speech is and how we must not permit ourselves to be bullied into muteness. Yet we must take heed of reality too, best summed up in the stunningly honest comment of journalist Neil Macdonald on the January 7th CBC news broadcast: “I wish thugs and killers couldn’t bully my profession. But I know better.”
The truth is, we are being bullied. We are being terrorized. We are being silenced. We are permitting our institutional media to muzzle speech and to obscure images which might offend the oh-so-easily offended maniacs of this world. And while that truth does, indeed, offend my sensibilities and probably yours, we must take a breath and think about why so many organizations are being so careful. It is not enough to call it “cowardice” or whatever pejorative term we might utter. We must understand it.
It is likely that everyone who worked, or who remains alive and well enough to work today at Charlie Hebdo, understood the risk of their occupation. Certainly the editor Mr. Charbonnier, who so eloquently said he would rather “die standing than live on my knees” understood it. As such, the Charlie Hebdo journalists went into battle eyes open, armed with pens and pencils and keyboards and hopes that they could do their work and stay alive.
What about all the other media outlets? Mainstream media have for some years refused to show images of the Prophet believed to be inflammatory to the hyper-sensitive and unhinged. They have been flayed for that alleged cowardice. This morning, in the aftermath of mass murder, it has been said that the Charlie Hebdo drawings should be published everywhere now, in solidarity and as a message to the bad guys.
All of that would feel good. It would feel right. It probably would be right. The drawings are “newsworthy” and CNN, CBC, the New York Times, Le Monde, BBC – even Aljazeera – would be justified in publishing them. Hell, I wish the President of France had given his speech wearing a t-shirt with a Charlie Hebdo cartoon of the Prophet on it. That would also feel good, and be good. And it would be damned dangerous. If we didn’t know that before, we know it now.
It is awful to make decisions out of fear. It might even be wrong to do so, but this is not all that simple. The decisions being made by media organizations are not personal ones, they’re institutional ones: there are real people involved here – thousands and thousands of them. Maybe Charlie Hebdo was ready, in some way, for what happened on January 7th. Maybe. The problem is, not everyone in the media has accepted that risk. Not every receptionist went into work knowing she faced a realistic prospect of being the first one killed when the terrorists visit. Not every journalist, typing away about restaurants or new productions of Les Mis or the cancellation of school buses, has put her hand up saying “sure, I’ll put a target on my back.”
When a publisher or editor makes a decision to take a risk, they may be imposing that risk on everyone in the newsroom, everyone in the cafeteria or lobby, every correspondent in every town, everyone out on the street wearing the company badge. The boss is responsible for their safety. It is one thing for me to wave a red flag in front of a bull and prepare to fight it; it is another, altogether, to do that on a crowded street of innocents.
Just as the CBC was responsible for protecting its staff from allegedly predatory radio hosts, so too the CBC is responsible for protecting those staff from obviously dangerous terrorists. It must secure the building where the “free press runs” but it must also be careful not to invite murderers to test that security (which failed at Charlie Hebdo). Defensive measures and behaviours are a responsible part of prosecuting a war successfully.
For we are, most certainly, in a war. A war to defend our civilization against Islamist tyranny and terror. That war saw more casualties yesterday and will see more in the days and years to come. The Charlie Hebdo journalists were not just “victims” but were, it seems in every sense, a Volunteer Brigade. But most people, in the media and elsewhere, do not believe they have volunteered to man the ramparts.
Maybe they’re wrong. Maybe safety is an illusion, or is just a relative state of being. Events perhaps have conscripted each of us into battle. Maybe there are no civilians anymore. If that is the bloody lesson of January 7, 2015, what lesson shall we teach those at war with us? That we are willing to publish silly cartoons? Okay, but could we guarantee a knuckle sandwich with that too, by any chance? Because, as Woody Allen once famously said, Nazis really don’t “get” satire. What they get is baseball bats.