The three days of attacks that began with the massacre at the headquarters of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo have made clear the limits of violence as a weapon of social change. We often treat the threat of terrorism as if our liberty were in the balance, as if the rule of law were vulnerable to the whims and hatred of lunatic extremists. But the people of France are demonstrating forcefully that civil society, open democracy, and freedom of personal and interpersonal expression, will not yield to hate and murder.
And the people of the world are standing with them. Yesterday, hundreds of thousands marched across France, and hundreds of thousands more joined them in capitals around the world, and today, the numbers are even greater. An estimated 1 million people have joined a Unity March in Paris, led by the families of the victims and by several dozen heads of state from around the world.
The demonstrations of 11 January (11-1) may stand as a landmark moment, when the free societies of the world made clear: violence will not cause us to surrender our commitment to human liberty, individual rights, and the rule of law. One woman interviewed by the BBC said being in the midst of the throngs flooding central Paris made her feel commitment to the idea that in order to have a truly free society, a certain amount of risk must be tolerated.
While there have been a few vocal demands for a near-authoritarian crackdown on freedom of movement and privacy rights across Europe, the sentiment of the moment seems to be much more clearly expressed by the now world-famous drawing by Lucille Clerc showing from top to bottom a pencil captioned “yesterday”, a broken pencil captioned “today”, and then two sharpened pencils captioned “tomorrow”. Freedom is its own best defense.
The staff of Charlie Hebdo lived by this principle: they refused to alter their editorial judgment or their satirical message, despite past threats and attacks on their offices. If they knew they were facing danger, and they stood by the principle of free human expression, then surely an entire society, in which most people will never face such peril, can honor that courage by doing the same.
Anyone has the right to view what is published as offensive, to raise their voices in protest, and to demand an apology from those they feel have gone beyond the outer limits of acceptable public comment. The essence of free expression is the right to disagree, and to argue over the value of what is said. Many free speech advocates, and many journalists and editors, believe satire should avoid insults to faith traditions or potential provocations, but no human being anywhere in the world can fully realize his or her talents or values if the work of journalists and cartoonists can be met with political persecution or bloodshed.
Citizenship is not only a right, it is an ethical call: the freedom and dignity of any citizen depends on how that citizen answers the call to honor the freedom and dignity of all others. Ancient habits tempt us to treat all others as potential rivals, but cooperation in service of shared liberty consistently makes advances against brutality. At this moment in history, there is great unrest and a surge in radicalism, but freedom of expression and the demand for human rights are also more widespread than at any point in human history.
The perpetrators of this atrocity have, contrary to their wishes, sparked a global movement in favor of liberty, unity, and ecumenical cooperation. The limits of violence are so narrow, that even where there is peril in standing up to its tyranny, the natural human reaction is defiance and banding together. A handful of wannabe radicals, who sought, for whatever perverse reason, shelter and inspiration in the embrace of misanthropic killers posing as people of faith, are now swamped by a movement made of millions, determined to extinguish every last hint of their perversion.
In the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” What is so important about the swift and global reaction of solidarity, transcending faith or nationality, is that it shows people will stand up for these intangible values, even in a moment of terrible fear.
There will likely be an international manhunt for anyone who participated in the plot to carry out this attack. And there should be, and those responsible should be brought to justice. Weapons of war will likely be mobilized, if it is shown that there is connection to radicals who use violence to claim control of lawless territory in Syria, Yemen or elsewhere. And France has a right to such efforts in service of its national defense. The international community will likely support these efforts.
But today’s show of civil force should remind us all: there is a battle to be fought and won in the terrain of the human spirit, and that battle is between respect for free human life and disdain for any life not in service of violent radical aims. That 1 million people, of every color, race and creed, can join together with heads of state, and secure the center of Paris peacefully as a beacon of human liberty, and that hundreds of thousands more around the world can join them, also in peace, shows the way to victory in that battle for the human spirit.
By committing to one another’s liberty, dignity, and thriving, we secure a future of liberty, dignity, and thriving, for ourselves, our families, our nations, and for future generations. By joining together across the social boundaries of faith and faction, by committing to an ecumenical civics, an inclusive and democratic exercise of political process, we do more to marginalize, constrain, and eliminate, violent extremism, than we can by any other means.
Let January 11, 2015, be the day when the world said, once and for all, violence will never be allowed to strip human societies of liberty, dignity, and thriving. Today’s young people should come of age in a world where we have finally chosen, nation by nation, and as partners, to be committed to the peaceful and open exchange of ideas, and to peaceful and open democratic process, as the best way forward for humanity.