The terrorist murders of satirists (yes: satirists!) associated with the weekly, Charlie Hebdo in Paris have inspired an all-too predictable range of responses.
Some, like the thousands of citizens who gathered within hours of the attack in public plazas across Europe, holding signs saying “Je Suis Charlie,” have been genuinely moving.
Others, like the reported cheers and gloating apparently turning up on what, for lack of better definition, we might call terrorist-friendly social media sites, have been chilling.
And then there has been the inevitable tsunami of semi-stunned head-shaking from the vast number of public commentators, like yours truly, who keep trying (and failing) to find adequate ways to talk about events like this one in ways that might resemble something like helpful.
Once again, our sense of public safety has been breached by people whose willingness to inflict suffering and fear appears unlimited. And this time, their violence was directed at a cornerstone of our collective sense of self — freedom of speech.
What, we wonder, do these people want?
Which leads to another question: How do we keep them from getting it?
And can we do that without changing who we are?
The thing is, we’ve been changing all along. We’ve never stopped. We’re like the frog in the frying pan that doesn’t notice the heat until he’s ready to eat.
This is globalization. This is a worldwide web. This is the implicit demand of a "connected" society: that everyone, for example, subscribe to a certain version of freedom of speech. But that is a huge demand for more people than we care to imagine. It is not as self-evident a value for them as it is for us. I mean, many of us are not even comfortable with this idea. Many of us think the Torture Report should never have seen the light of day. Or that whistle-blowers are traitors.
Some writers I’ve seen advocate that we not only have a right, but an obligation to critique other cultures and religions for what seem to be authoritarian or repressive views — as if such views were political or consumer choices. But this assumes the worldwide web also implies a worldwide cultural standard. And doesn’t this begin to resemble the imperialism that fundamentalists have been lashing out against?
This doesn't make them right, or even justified. But it suggests that we are not "all one." We in the techno West have imposed a huge set of assumptions on another part of the world. We've been doing it for over a century. We justified this by saying that empire was a civilizing force in many places, when, in reality, it was mostly just force.
Now our borders are open. Through capitalism and its off-shoots: high technology, a voracious appetite for natural resources, mass entertainment, and militarization, we have inexorably drawn other, abused cultures and religions closer to ourselves.
Now here they are, flopping and gasping on our deck.
They challenge us to be who we think we are. But who is that, really?