The attack on Charlie Hebdo because of its editorial policy has elicited a lot of support and a lot of criticism of the magazine. Some have even questioned the right of the periodical to publish satire (or parody or burlesque) of religious beliefs. It is my position that “rights” exist to the extent that they do not unduly curtail other “rights.” The right to free speech, for example, does not extend to playing your car radio at full blast under my bedroom window at 3:00 am. Similarly my US “right” to carry firearms does not extend to shooting you if and when you do. The classic admonition is that “The right of free speech does not include the right to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” Another way of stating this principle is “Your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.”
In 1968 demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago protested a political system that they felt was manipulated to disenfranchise many potential voters. Recall that this was in the age of student activism and of the human rights movement. The numbers of protestors were many times larger than the “organizers” of the demonstration had anticipated. Like most cities that hold a national major convention, Chicago considered the demonstration a blot on its image. The mayor gave orders to his police department to “shoot to maim” and, in extreme cases, “shoot to kill.” Many of the demonstrators were beaten without obvious justification.
For historical perspective, the Convention nominated Hubert H. Humphrey as its presidential candidate. He went on to lose to Richard M. Nixon in the general election. There has been some speculation regarding the degree to which the actions of the City of Chicago negatively affected the candidacy of Humphrey. In my opinion, it single-handedly did not cost HHH the election, but it did have an impact on many young voters who had actively entered politics as a result of the candidacy and election of John F. Kennedy some eight years previously.
After the Convention, “ringleaders” were arrested and tried as “conspirators.” This group was known as the “Chicago 8,” but was later reduced to the “Chicago 7” when Black Panther leader Bobby Seale was separated from the group for failing to cooperate with prosecutors. The defendants were acquitted on some counts and found guilty on others. Abbie Hoffman (who later led the effort to recover the Love Canal from excessive pollution) said of the trial: “Conspiracy? Hell, we couldn’t even agree on lunch.” The convictions and also the indictments were overthrown and the judge and prosecutors were chastised by the appeals court.
A Blue Ribbon panel was appointed (they were popular back then) to report on the situation for the record. After lengthy narrative explaining the background and actions, the Blue Ribbon panel concluded that the “disturbance” was a “police riot,” and that police and authorities “over-reacted” to peaceful demonstrations. To this day, some demonstrators chant “Chicago 7” when strong action is seen as being needed. The images of the Chicago police rank with images of police dogs being turned loose on human rights demonstrators.
I mention the 1968 Chicago demonstrations since I feel a strong connection of it with Charlie Hebdo. I feel the right of free expression is as valid as the right to religious (or political or scientific) belief. The magazine was exercising this right. (I am not saying it was wise to do so, only that it was a basic freedom.) The attackers felt they were avenging a religious figure while they were actually swinging their arms into someone else’s nose.
If the issue is seen from the perspective of whose rights were more violated, then the question becomes “Is it worse to belittle my beliefs or to take my life?” And any valid answer should come only from one who does not have an intimate association with either. That is why I have problems with what Pope Francis said about the attack. He stated that people should not take belief systems lightly. But free speech is a belief system and his very statement belittles it. I have some respect for the way he has brought light and change to Christian thought, but feel he has completely left the rails on this.
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