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Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech, and the "War on Terror"


On Tuesday of this week, PEN America, an organization of writers and editors that advocates for free speech, gave Charlie Hebdo a major award for "freedom of expression courage." At the gala in New York where the award was presented, the editors of Charlie Hebdo received a standing ovation. This came several days after two hundred PEN members signed a letter protesting the granting of the award to Charlie Hebdo, and prominent writers such as Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, and Francine Prose pulled out of the gala, citing Hebdo’s “cultural intolerance.”

Today at the n+1 website, Keith Gessen, long-time editor of the magazine, has published a nuanced and eloquent explanation for why he signed the protest letter against Charlie Hebdo. Here’s an excerpt:

When people in France, in their mourning, declared “Je suis Charlie,” they were expressing grief, an identification with the victims of horrific violence. But what were people expressing when they said “Je suis Charlie” in the US? It was a tragedy. But what did it mean to identify with those particular victims, at this particular time? I could be wrong, but it seemed to me that “Je suis Charlie” was a way for people to re-pledge their commitment to the War on Terror that had been announced by the United States in 2001. For this reason, despite sharing everyone’s horror, and despite, as one of the editors of a magazine, being able to imagine all too well how easily someone could come into our offices and shoot us, if they felt like it—nonetheless, in the American context, I did not feel like I wanted to be Charlie, not in the sense in which it was being used in January of this year.

This to me was the background of the letter that I saw last week, protesting against awarding a prize for courage to the editors of Charlie Hebdo at the PEN Annual Gala this month. The letter worried that the award would go further than was necessary to defend the right of the cartoonists to their speech; it would actively celebrate that speech…

We’ve been asked to take note of the French context in discussing Charlie Hebdo, but here is a little bit about the American context in which much of this debate is taking place. We continue to prosecute a vicious, endless war on terror; people are endlessly being killed, jailed, and harassed in the name of this war. On the day I received the PEN letter, protesters in Baltimore were in their second week of speaking out against the brutal murder of yet another unarmed young black man. Visitors to the city all described a landscape of crushing poverty.

To me, the most serious problems facing our country are income inequality, strongly correlated with race. Freedom of speech is far behind; Islamic terrorism even further. And yet even if free speech seemed to you the basis of all other freedoms, you would still, I hope, acknowledge that the greatest threat to it comes not from fringe religious extremists, but from the US government. As James C. Goodale—the First Amendment lawyer for whom the PEN award slated to be given to Charlie Hebdo is named—wrote in the Times a few years ago, the current administration has only been exceeded by Nixon’s in its abuse of the freedom of the press.

Above image via n+1.