The twin controversies surrounding the PEN writers' organization's award to Charlie Hebdo magazine, and the attack on a Mohammed-drawing cartoon contest in Texas, have together generated some spectacularly confused commentary. In particular, commentators on all sides of the resulting debates seem to be under the impression that the key issue is the tension between the individual's right to freedom of speech and the damaging effects of "hate speech" on society as a whole.
That would indeed be the case if, say, either incident had involved a law criminalizing "hate speech", by some definition of the term. But no such law was applied in either case, and in the US, such a law (despite its substantial political appeal) would in fact stand no chance of passing Constitutional muster. Rather, the Texas contest participants and Charlie Hebdo staff, far from being arrested or indicted, were attacked by armed terrorists. This is a very different matter, and one that commentators should find much easier to navigate. For when terrorists attack civilian targets, any alleged moral imperfections of the victims fade into irrelevancy compared to the danger posed by terrorism itself.
This is easy to see in cases where one's sympathies already align with the victims and against the terrorists. For example, when Ward Churchill dared to suggest that the victims of the World Trade Center attack were in some way culpable for their own slaughter, Americans responded fairly uniformly with disgust and outrage. But historically, defenses of terrorism by sympathizers with their cause have actually been disturbingly common. The most notorious domestic American example, of course, is the Ku Klux Klan's terrorist rule over the South, which was enthusiastically embraced by millions of supporters of Jim Crow. More recently, though, terrorist groups such as the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground have been lionized by political sympathizers despite their bloody histories. And international terrorist organizations such as the PLO and the IRA established large followings in America and elsewhere among supporters of their respective political causes.
It is perhaps with this context in mind that defenders of Charlie Hebdo and the Texas contest organizers have fallen back on the weakest, most timid defense of all: "free speech". One might expect them to articulate a more straightforward assertion of outraged innocent victimhood, given that the terrorists in these cases intended to murder their targets in cold blood, not just fine them for violating a "hate speech" ordinance. Yet the shocking willingness of prominent sympathizers with the terrorists' cause to blame their victims appears to have scared them off explicitly claiming the moral high ground even from brutal murderers, in favor of adopting what amounts to a legalistic procedural justification for not being butchered by violent fanatics.
Much has been written--most of it devastatingly accurate--about the hypocrisy of commentators who enthusiastically defend offensively anti-Christian art while condemning its more mildly anti-Islamic equivalent. But such partisan double standards are hardly uncommon in today's hyperpartisan political environment--the hypocrites are simply aligning their religious defenses with their partisan loyalties, with fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Christians generally being on opposite sides of the domestic "left-right" political dividing line. Justifying terrorism, on the other hand, isn't mere partisan hypocrisy. Unqualified condemnation of terrorist violence from all sides should be automatic in a peaceful democratic society, and those who add caveats and qualifiers are playing a far more dangerous game, one that should be as roundly and uniformly condemned as terrorism itself.