Count me among the people who were unimpressed by Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments yesterday about the attacks in Paris. You can read them in full here, but the relevant portion is this one:
[W]e are deeply appreciative for your commitment to helping us to help people to share the values and the interests that we are all working to protect.
In the last days, obviously, that has been particularly put to the test. There’s something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that. There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of – not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, okay, they’re really angry because of this and that. This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn’t to aggrieve one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people. It was to attack everything that we do stand for. That’s not an exaggeration. It was to assault all sense of nationhood and nation-state and rule of law and decency, dignity, and just put fear into the community and say, “Here we are.”
Apologies for the lengthy quote, but I don’t want to be accused of taking anything out of context. To increase the context even further, we should remember that the attacks in Paris on Friday come months after a vicious paramilitary assault on the offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, during which 12 people were killed for the “crime” of blasphemy against the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
I want to focus on two portions of Kerry’s comments. The first is his “speako.” While I suppose it’s admirable that our nation’s chief diplomat was quick to correct his unfortunate admission that he found the attacks on Charlie Hebdo had “a legitimacy,” it’s telling that this is where his mind went as he was stumbling about looking for the words to express how the most recent attack was worse than the previous one.
Even if you leave that aside, however, his comments reside somewhere between inane and idiotic. First off, the idea that these attacks were “absolutely indiscriminate” is foolishness: As Alyssa Rosenberg has noted, the targets — a sporting event, a concert, a series of restaurants — and the comments released by the Islamic State in the aftermath of the attack make it quite clear that the attack was very “discriminate.” It was an assault on culture, a stab at the heart of Western “prostitution and obscenity.”
However, I find the idea that this sort of attack is worse than the Charlie Hebdo attack on anything other than a numerical scale to be totally baffling. The Paris attack is, sadly, not that out of the ordinary as far as these things go: It strikes me as no more indiscriminate than the Madrid attacks or the London bombings. The Charlie Hebdo attack, on the other hand, was a rather chilling exercise in political power. It was an attack that was explicitly aimed at our freedoms: the freedom to express ourselves, the freedom of press, the freedom from the tyranny of medieval theocracy. It was an attack designed to silence, to intimidate.
And it is an attack that, unfortunately, has worked. Kerry’s slip was annoying, but the sentiment he accidentally expressed was all too common. The idea that the rhetorical bomb-throwers at Charlie Hebdo should have refused to antagonize the literal bomb-throwers of radical Islam has gained altogether too much purchase amongst our intellectual class. From the literary luminaries who refused to attend the PEN American Center’s Freedom of Expression Courage award ceremony because they found Charlie Hebdo’s “punching down”* distasteful to the cartoonist of “Doonesbury” blaming the victims of violence for their deaths at the hands of radicals, the commitment to freedom of expression has been notably blunted in recent years.
Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, this sentiment is spreading beyond the confines of the war on terror. Consider the woeful state of discourse on college campuses. The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb recently dismissed legitimate concerns over the stifling of the press and the silencing of students in a piece headlined “race and the free-speech diversion.” The New Statesman’s Laurie Penny offered a similar argument in a piece headlined “The free speech delusion.” Students at Amherst protesting the administration demanded that school officials take down signs promoting “free speech” and requiring those who posted them “to attend extensive training for racial and cultural competency.”**
Some will dismiss the comparison, but the core idea is the same. Free speech is only to be valued when it is deployed in a way that does not “punch down” — and you can’t be too surprised when someone who takes offense tries to silence you, by any means necessary.
*”Punching down” is an odious phrase, one that both infantilizes those it’s supposed to defend and also suggests that the person uttering it has a perfect understanding of power dynamics or that said dynamics are stable. If it weren’t such a feckless, simpering phrase, I’d be tempted to say that condemning the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for “punching down” against “defenseless, oppressed people” after they have literally been murdered is itself a rather gross form of “punching down.”
**Mao called. He’d like his struggle session back when you’re done with it.