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Sunday, January 20 , 2019, 2:40 pm | A Few Clouds 67º


Diane Dimond: Free Speech and the Takeaway from the Terror in France

Who among us was not horrified at the spasm of deadly terrorism that has swept through Paris? Religious extremists — using Islam as justification — caused the deaths of 17 people in three separate instances and plunged the French nation into a state of fright.

There are so many layers to this tragedy. A stark reminder that anti-Semitism still exists followed the cold-blooded murders of four Jewish customers at a kosher grocery store. An entire religion was tainted in the minds of some. And a brazen display of evil as terrorists methodically gunned down 12 staffers at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in broad daylight.

Massive crowds flooded the streets of Paris, marching in support of freedom of speech. The phrase “Je Suis Charlie Hebdo!” (I am Charlie Hebdo) swept across the world.

But did everyone who repeated the phrase understand the reality? Stéphane​ Charbonnier, the editor of the magazine, made it his business to be provocative, to repeatedly taunt the Muslim prophet Muhammad in disparaging cartoons. Charbonnier specialized in deliberately offensive humor and treated all organized religion with disdain. Last month, he featured a cover cartoon depicting the Virgin Mary, legs splayed, giving birth to Jesus. His girlfriend said Charbonnier always knew he would die the way he did.

As distasteful as I found that Virgin Mary cartoon, I could never support censorship. And apparently neither could the millions of others across the world who have pledged their devotion to the idea.

Realize — freedom of speech is not a law. It is an absolute right all civilized nations embrace.

So, in the glow of all this re-dedication to freedom of speech, let me ask: Do you faithfully adhere to the concept? Are you tolerant of others’ opinions? Do you allow those around you to express their thoughts without pigeonholing them into some dismissible category? Does the phrase, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” ever enter your mind?

Yeah, me neither. What’s happened to us?

We demand freedom of expression for a magazine in France (named after the American-born cartoon character Charlie Brown) while we fail to practice it in our everyday lives.

So many of us are automatically dismissive of viewpoints that don’t match our own on important issues such as gun control, immigration and government regulation. So guess what? Nothing gets done. The pendulum of intolerance swings so far left and then right that it never stays in the middle long enough for us to reach any thoughtful compromise.

Many cling to the idea that being “politically correct” (whatever that means) trumps everything else. The thought being that if a small group of people might possibly be offended by something, then that something must be quashed.

Case in point: author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose hugely moving autobiography, Infidel, so graphically told the horror of genital mutilation of Muslim girls in her native Somalia, she was denied a planned honorary degree at Brandeis University last year because she had dared to criticize Islam.

I guess the brain trust at Brandeis thought it better to appease that tiny fraction of Muslims who cling to the idea that holding down a pre-teen girl to mutilate her is OK. By that train of thought, we ought not criticize the bloodthirsty radicals who attacked in France. Gee, their comrades in terror might be offended.

A few days after the carnage in France, I had the pleasure to visit the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. It was a moving experience as I wandered through Rockwell’s artwork, including his 50 years of covers for the Saturday Evening Post. So different than what Charbonnier and his staff artists routinely produced. Rockwell’s work was wholesome, hopeful and patriotic.

I stood for a long time in front of his piece titled “Freedom of Speech,” featuring a common man earnestly addressing a town meeting while others looked on in respectful attentiveness. Another in this Rockwell series titled “Freedom to Worship” hung nearby. It depicts a group of people with bowed heads and folded hands and includes the phrase, “Each according to the dictates of his own conscience.”

I’m not Charlie Hebdo. I never want to be the person who makes fun of someone’s religious beliefs. That, too, is sacrosanct in my book. Practicing freedom of speech while trampling on someone else’s right to worship is not something I can get behind. Do it if you want, Charlie Hebdo, but don’t ask me to applaud while you do it.

Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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