Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie!

No, I am not Charlie. The New York Times is not Charlie.

The murder of a dozen magazine staff members in Paris has generated a fascinating debate about freedom of expression. No person, save the demented followers of extremist Islam, can view the events in Paris as anything other than utterly horrifying. That any human would be slaughtered as consequence for political expression is unthinkable, whether that expression is muted and dignified or vivid and sophomoric.

Global outrage is justified, although many have pointed out the curious inconsistency, perhaps hypocrisy, in the vigor with which we condemn this particular instance of rabid extremism.

In the shadows beyond the glaring spotlight on Charlie Hebdo, Boko Haram fighters reportedly slaughtered 2,000 men, women and children in Nigeria. This crazy splinter group of radical Islamists is reportedly using young girl captives as suicide bombers.

Where is the "Je suis" campaign in honor of those children who did nothing to provoke the gruesome service to which their small bodies were sacrificed? Every day our oil "friends" in Saudi Arabia engage in stoning and beheading those accused of adultery or blasphemy. There is no worldwide shortage of viciousness.

We abhor all these things . . . but, of course, it's more outrageous when it happens to folks like us. When the values we hold dear are assaulted. One would think that the right to publish offensive cartoons is more sacred than the lives of innocent children. Please don't misconstrue my views. I like free speech as much as the next guy. I use it every day. But as horrid as the Charlie Hebdo murders were, those vile acts produced more free speech, not less.

But my primary motivation in writing on this well-covered topic is to address another point, largely absent in the raging debate. A surprising number of voices, from distinguished constitutional scholars to barstool philosophers, are conflating two entirely separate issues. The majority of opinion pieces I've read and the vast majority of comments made in various discussion forums, especially the New York Times and Huffington Post, bemoan the "cowardice" shown by the Times and other publications that choose to not publish the cartoons that were the catalyst for the murderers.

The overwhelming sentiment seems to be, "We'll show those damn Muslim terrorists that we can't be intimidated!!" "If we don't publish these images everywhere, in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, the terrorists win!" Je Suis Charlie!!!

It reminds me of the fervor following 9/11, when it seemed every building in Manhattan flew the American flag and Sikh cab drivers declared their patriotic bona fides on the dashboard to reduce the possibility of violent retribution from enraged passengers. I wrote at that time about the crazy debate within my school about flying the American flag. There was a suffocating and threatening conformity implicit in post -9/11 that resonates to this day and has inspired our own engagement in needless slaughter.

Although the analogy is imprecise, I'm reminded of the dual religious intentions of the 1st Amendment. The Amendment promises both the freedom of religious expression and freedom from the imposition of religion. "Of" and "from" are also important implications of speech. The freedom "to express" implies no obligation to speak. While the word does not appear in the 1st Amendment, "restraint" is also a noble impulse.

Prior to the Charlie Hebdo murders many publications, New York Times included, practiced thoughtful journalism, restraining from gratuitous and outrageous expression while covering and offering opinions on a wide range of controversial issues. Others, including rags like the New York Post and satirists like the Onion and Charlie Hebdo, chose a more colorful, sacrilegious and provocative form of expression. Both are important. The Huffington Post published the images and I respect that decision too.

But the pressure for "conformity of outrage" has its own dangers. We Americans are inclined toward the easy symbolism of yellow ribbons tied on trees or the facile patriotism of American flags on bumper stickers. Conformity of outrage, particularly under public or political pressure, is dangerous too.

Institutions and individuals choosing to maintain their usual standards of civility, despite the loud insistence of mob mentality, are to be commended, not vilified.

A version of this post appeared in the Valley News.