By Zachary Boughner
I’ve made some controversial statements in my time as a Vanguard columnist. But nothing I’ve said compares to the provocative repertoire of off-color cartoons and polemics built up by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in its 40-plus years of publication. Even the magazine’s name references some controversial humor—the magazine’s predecessor, Hara-Kiri, was banned after it jested about the death of former French President Charles De Gaulle.
As most people know, recently Charlie Hebdo made headlines not for its usual political incorrectness but for horrific tragedy. On January 7, a pair of Islamic extremists broke into the office building and opened fire on the magazine’s employees, killing 12.
This attack on the organization was not an isolated incident. In 2011, terrorists fire-bombed the magazine’s Paris office and hacked into its website. Thought to be carried out in retaliation for the magazine’s controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, the January attacks sparked a global discussion about free speech and its boundaries—a conversation that only escalated after a radicalized former gang member carried out multiple shootings in Copenhagen, Denmark, in mid-February. This, too, appears to have been a targeted attack, this time directed at Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist who published drawings of the prophet Muhammad.
I don’t deny that Europe will have to concede some civil liberties in exchange for national security. But as they restrict freedoms of speech and of press, the region’s governments also ought to eliminate the double standard they often apply to freedom of expression.
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo bloodshed, European officials immediately sought to prevent other terrorist attacks. The New York Times reported that the interior ministers from a dozen countries in the European Union (EU)—including power players France, England, and Germany—issued a joint statement ordering internet service providers to identify and remove any content that “aims to incite hatred and terror.” The statement also recommended that the EU start investigating the itineraries of air travelers. British Prime Minister David Cameron even floated the idea of banning all internet services that refused to give the government the ability to monitor all encrypted chats and calls.
These are natural reactions for a continent that has experienced two terrorist attacks over a one-month span, and to some extent, trading civil liberties for greater national security is necessary. And while this exchange may still be very foreign to Europeans, it’s one with which Americans have grown very familiar. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans have grown accustomed to legislation like the Patriot Act and institutions like the National Security Agency (NSA), whose largely unregulated snooping incited worldwide controversy after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed it in 2013.
True, these institutions do infringe upon our civil liberties, but they also enable our government to better manage terrorism. Responding to criticisms of his organization in the wake of the Snowden scandal, former NSA Director Keith Alexander said that the United States government has prevented 54 terrorist attacks with information the NSA collected. In this regard, Europe may have something to learn from American policy. It doesn’t really prevent terrorism, but it does help us deal with terrorism. It makes many Americans feel a lot safer, and naturally many Europeans also welcome this feeling of safety, a logical step to take after the tragedy at Charlie Hebdo.
However, Americans could also borrow from European policy. Contrary to the vague, sweeping language defining freedom of expression in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the boundaries of free speech are spelled out in many European countries. France, for example, outright bans hate-speech. Anyone who denies the Holocaust could face time in prison. Comments deemed by the courts to be derogatory toward a religion have forced many—including high-profile French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala—to answer for their “crimes.” In theory, such a policy in the U.S. could have prevented the Quran-burning escapades of Florida pastor Terry Jones and, in turn, the riots in Afghanistan that, incited by Jones’ actions, killed 12 people.
Many observers have noted, however, that European governments do not scrutinize defamatory comments directed at Islam with the same severity. Just consider Charlie Hebdo’s many covers featuring satirical cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Despite the hate speech ban, offensive speech, writing, and cartoons directed at Islam have triggered little punitive reaction from the French government. Hate speech is treated unequally under the law and seems dependent on what faith or value system the speech is directed toward.
Before countries in the European Union go about implementing tighter restrictions on civil liberties, they ought to eliminate the double standard in their definition of free expression.