An American Editor

January 21, 2015

On Politics: Thinking About Charlie

On January 7 terrorists attacked the offices of the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people. At the same time and in support of the Hebdo murders, people were murdered at a Jewish grocery in Paris.

The attacks and the killings were unjustified and unjustifiable. But then, I think, so were the deliberate taunts of Muslims by Hebdo unjustified and unjustifiable. We give credence to the slogan “freedom of speech,” yet seem incapable of understanding how anyone could possibly react as the terrorists did or justify that reaction to the publication of the cartoons by Charlie Hebdo.

What I found disturbing in the aftermath of the murders is the narrowness of the protests and the one-sided assigning of blame. I also find the hypocrisy of the protestors disheartening and not understandable. In addition, I find reprehensible Hebdo’s followup “response” (the cover of the aftermath issue of Charlie Hebdo) and Hebdo’s unwillingness to acknowledge or accept any responsibility for what occurred — both in its own offices and in the Jewish grocery — as well as the unwillingness of society to say that Hebdo shares responsibility.


On the forums on which Hebdo was discussed and of which I am a member, the near universal spoken belief was that Hebdo had no responsibility for what occurred. I think that is simply a reflection of prejudice against, in this instance, Islam. Hebdo knew or should have known that publishing cartoons that insult the Prophet Mohammed will incite some Muslims to violence. It does not matter whether such a reaction is justified, just that any reasonably intelligent person would have predicted/expected such a reaction. It is not as if this has not occurred before. And when Hebdo had done similar “satire” in the past, it was attacked, resulting in some staffers being given police protection (one of the Hebdo dead was a bodyguard).

Does someone who deliberately and knowingly provokes another person to violence have any responsibility for the violence? I think in a world that claims to value freedom the answer has to be yes. Otherwise, the only one for whom we value freedom is ourselves. (Wasn’t that the view of slave owners throughout history?)

Living in a society involves reciprocal obligations. That is the basis for our interrelationships. We have simply delegated responsibility for enforcing those reciprocal obligations to a judicial system, but that does not change the underlying obligations. Yet in the Hebdo instance, it appears as if most people and Hebdo itself believe that Hebdo had no obligation to Muslims (not to insult), only that Muslims had an obligation to Hebdo (not to react, especially violently, to any insult).

Without in any way approving of the terrorists’ reaction, I am of the belief that Hebdo acted knowingly recklessly. I think Hebdo expected a reaction like what occurred except that it expected the reaction to occur somewhere else and to someone else. It is not as if Hebdo had not previously made whatever point it was trying to make; it had mocked Islam before.

This lack of willingness to accept responsibility is shored up in my view by the cover cartoon of the first issue after the massacre and the publication run size — 100 times the normal print run. The response to the followup cover was to be expected — the threat of more attacks to come.

I am not Charlie because I cannot endorse reckless behavior for which the consequences are known yet the perpetrator is unwilling to acknowledge or accept any responsibility. With freedom of speech comes the obligation to accept responsibility for the consequences of its use.


The march in support of Hebdo was interesting. It was led by government leaders who claim to march in support of freedom of speech as they and their governments limit it. If the German government doesn’t agree with your politics, they close down your political party. If the French government thinks your speech isn’t following the official line as regards terrorism, they have you arrested — apparently more than 100 people were arrested in France for speaking freely within days of the march. Many of the marching governments have laws that permit the arrest and detention on unproven suspicion of possible terrorism activity or laws that permit arrest and detention of people for simply expressing verbal support for “terrorism.”

And isn’t it interesting that the march was for Hebdo’s right to publish insults, but there was no similar march protesting the anti-Semitism that has been on the rise in France or the Islamophobia that has gained currency, including the attacks on mosques, in France. Many French have painted all Muslims with the same broad strokes, even though the vast majority of Muslims do not condone the terrorist acts.

Perhaps even more interesting, at least to me, was how Charlie Hebdo came into being. It seems that it came into being partly as a response to its predecessor title having been shut down by a French government ban. Where were the marches in protest then?

News media have reported that Jews are thinking of emigrating from France because of the anti-Semitism (and let us not forget that the Jews who were killed in the kosher grocery were buried in Israel, not in their French homeland). Where was the solidarity with the Jews? Where was the outrage for those who were murdered in the kosher grocery as part of the Hebdo attack? Or the outrage for the attacks on synagogues?

Much of the hypocrisy lies in the idea that freedom of speech for those who are favored is different than the freedom of speech that is for those who are disfavored. Hebdo is lauded for insulting Islam and is under no obligation to accept any responsibility for its provocations. But the insulted Muslims are expected to accept the insults quietly, just brush them off as one commentator suggested.

The Failure of the Social Compact

To my thinking, what Hebdo really illustrates is a failure of the social compact. The social compact has always been that of reciprocity: I respect you and you respect me. But that is not the Hebdo compact. The Hebdo compact is: You respect me and I disrespect you. There is no reciprocal obligation.

Society survives only when there is reciprocity. When people are unwilling to accept responsibility for their actions, chaos ensues. A simple illustration is driving: When we all abide by the rules of the road, such as stopping for a red light, society thrives. But if just a small percent of people take the view that I have to follow those rules but they do not, chaos on the roads ensues.

Religion has always been a harbinger of social chaos because every religion is based on the core idea that it is the one true religion and all others are blasphemous. And where the fundamental rule of reciprocity fails, religious wars — covert or overt — persist. Those wars may not always be overtly violent, but they are suppressive. In the West, we have made, since World War II, the maintenance of society a core value. Consequently, following World War II, until recent years, reciprocal religious respect has been the rule. Hebdo is evidence of the breakdown of that rule because the “I am Charlie” movement supports the “freedom” to disrespect others without any responsibility for the results of that disrespect.

This is not to say that Hebdo should not have been permitted to publish what it wanted. Rather, it is to say that Hebdo should be obligated to accept responsibility for the consequences of its decision to do so. It is also to say that we should not accept “freedom of speech” that is freedom only for those with whom we agree; the real test of freedom of speech — or of any freedom — is whether we give it to those with whom we disagree.

To be free ourselves, we must give others the
freedom we desire. To be free ourselves, we must give
others the respect we want given us.

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. Well thought out and argued. Logical and moral, therefore probably not acceptable.


    Comment by michael dale — January 21, 2015 @ 4:58 am | Reply

  2. I couldn’t agree more with what you have written. One has to accept responsibility for one’s actions, and when pulling a lion’s tail one shouldn’t be surprised if the lion turns and bites you…

    Also how far does freedom of speech actually go? Does this right extend to members of the extreme right when talking about Jews and Negroes? It is tricky to extend this right to those whose views one finds abhorrent isn’t it?


    Comment by Tony Cole — January 21, 2015 @ 5:21 am | Reply

  3. “To be free ourselves, we must give others the freedom we desire. To be free ourselves, we must give others the respect we want given us.” Sounds rather like the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. That adage’s thought and the language transcend religion and politics. Why is it so hard to remember and apply?


    Comment by Carolyn — January 21, 2015 @ 7:19 am | Reply

  4. I totally agree with your commentary on this, Rich. We each bear responsibility for our actions toward others.


    Comment by Mary Tod — January 21, 2015 @ 8:02 am | Reply

  5. I agree with you that Charlie was taunting Muslims. But the problem with this argument is that it’s what domestic abusers use. “She made me do it.” A wife serves coffee that isn’t hot enough for her husband or talks on the phone with a friend and gets beaten up, perhaps fatally. Clearly if you “taunt” someone, a response is expected. But it’s up to the responder to ensure that the response isn’t violent. Some abusers aren’t able to control their tempers. And some militant groups, and some governments, aren’t able to control their weapons.


    Comment by Gretchen — January 21, 2015 @ 8:15 am | Reply

    • This was exactly my issue and why I stopped reading at “It does not matter whether such a reaction is justified, just that any reasonably intelligent person would have predicted/expected such a reaction. It is not as if this has not occurred before.” Women are threatened everyday just for posting their opinions on the Internet, so if they continue to do so and are actually attacked should they be blamed for that?


      Comment by Sly Wit — January 21, 2015 @ 11:54 am | Reply

      • The issue is not blame but shared responsibility for acts intended to provoke the reaction that occurred. If a woman repeatedly tells the world that her ex-boyfriend is impotent hoping to “get even” with the ex-boyfriend and knows that the ex-boyfriend is violent, then she must share the responsibility for his violent reaction. Just because you are a woman does not give you a free pass. Everything depends on circumstances. Shouldn’t abusive women bear some responsibility? (BTW, although most adult abuse is male on female, there is female on male abuse, too. Shouldn’t your comment be more gender neutral or do you believe that women are entitled to abuse with impunity? And let us not forget the children who are abused by their mothers [and fathers, and other relatives, and other people] too; should the mothers be given a free pass because they are female? That is the substance of your argument. Or does it depend on circumstances?)

        In the Charlie Hebdo case, the magazine deliberately and knowingly antagonized Muslims — and expected or should have expected the response it got, except I think it expected it not to hit the magazine. I suspect that Hebdo thought any response would occur in a place like Pakistan and that Pakistanis would suffer the wrath. Should Hebdo get a free pass or should it share responsibility?

        We can all conjure circumstances when one party should not be responsible, but I find it difficult to say that the abuser bears no responsibility. Your and Gretchen’s comment speak of the victim, not the abuser. In the Hebdo case, aren’t the Muslims the victims and Hebdo the abuser?


        Comment by americaneditor — January 21, 2015 @ 12:30 pm | Reply

        • Boy, does this twist what I said. I agreed that the statement “It does not matter whether such a reaction is justified” recalled to my mind the victim-blaming that often goes along with domestic violence cases. I didn’t say “women get a free pass”; I said women are threatened everyday on the Internet just by giving their opinion, which you immediately twisted to some sort of bizarre #notallmen derailing scenario where a women is talking about a man’s impotence (which, by the way, still wouldn’t be justification for a physical attack). I was giving an example of how it does matter whether such a reaction is justified. Women stating opinions on the Internet are often subject to significant threats (and, yes, there are countless studies showing that this is a gendered issue–for example, just by having a female name and/or picture on Twitter opens you to abuse that the male equivalent does not experience). By the logic presented in the referenced paragraph, women would be responsible for any harm done to them if they continued simply being female on the Internet. I don’t accept that. (With apologies to Gretchen for hijacking her initial comment.)


          Comment by Sly Wit — January 21, 2015 @ 1:32 pm | Reply

        • I’m confused here. If Muslims are victims and Hebdo is the abuser, then in my analogy it would be equivalent to the woman shooting the husband, which is different from what I was saying, that the abusers blame the victims. Re sexism, yes one could suggest umpteem variations of man abusing wife, say transexual abusing an elderly biracial cross-dresser. My example was just one of many. One can’t address all populations at once. Some children abuse their parents, but that’s not the usual situation.


          Comment by Gretchen — January 21, 2015 @ 7:19 pm | Reply

          • My point only was that in the case at hand with Charlie Hebdo, Hebdo refuses to accept any responsibility for its actions, including for the consequence of the people being murdered in the kosher grocery. I have never suggested that the terrorists do not deserve blame; rather, that responsibility/blame is not one-sided and cannot be refused under the guise of freedom of speech. Even in the United States, which has some of the most liberal views when it comes to freedom of speech, there are limits based on the consequences. The usual example given is the yelling of fire in a crowded theater, knowing it will cause a panic and some people to get hurt. But legal history is replete with other examples.

            No blanket statement can cover all contingencies, which is my objection to Sly Wit and your comments — one can always find a situation when it shouldn’t or couldn’t apply. But I stand by my view that in the Hebdo situation, Hebdo bears some responsibility for the massacre. That in today’s America we would not consider the violent reaction acceptable behavior superimposes over the rest of the world our values when the rest of the world may not agree with those values. Consider, for example, the ease with which we can, today, publish Mein Kampf in America. Try publishing it in Germany. Or try to deny the Holocaust in France or Germany, something one can easily do in America.

            Now consider what is known about reactions in Muslim countries to depictions of the prophet. In every comment here, the view is through the lens of wholly different society and culture. JimH likens this to miniskirts and rape and he is correct here, in America. But is he correct in Iran or India? Knowing what we do know about the problems of rape in India, if you were to visit India, would you deliberately ride a bus alone in a micro-miniskirt? Perhaps a more pointed illustration is in countries with religious police who go around making sure women are clothed in accordance with their country’s standards. Would you not expect trouble if you were to walk the streets of Riyadh in a bikini? Sure you can do that in America, but not in Saudi Arabia. Would you deliberately invite the known physical reaction of the religious police in Saudi Arabia?

            If you went to those countries and acted in such a provocative manner, would you not share responsibility for the reaction to your provocation?

            If you know that Muslim extremists physically attack people who they believe insulted their prophet — have we forgotten Denmark so quickly? — and you have even experienced it yourself in the past, as Hebdo had, do you share the responsibility for the consequences of continuing to provoke them? I think you do.

            I think the general, guiding rule is shared responsibility and as with all rules, there are exceptions, which you have noted. But to say because there are exceptions there is no rule is, in my view, incorrect.


            Comment by americaneditor — January 22, 2015 @ 4:21 am

  6. Dear American Editor, Sorry for my bad English (I am French, leaving in Canada). I feel really bad with this post. Not because of your position (it is a classical one in US) but because it seems that a lot of facts are not acessible in US and because you don’t seem to know very well the French situation. I am not 100% Charlie (nobody is, for different reasons, and in the March everybody came for different reasons too), but since 2 weekds I try to read about it and understand. Not judge. Why do you post on your blog about editing a so conservative political position? You feel free and you justifiy it, you don’t see the potential offense for me for example? I am a reader, I take it. If I don’t agree, I write to you to discuss, I don’t kill you. OK? And I will not kill journalists from US Fox news because the gave incredible information (we laght about it, and Paris administration will see if it is really legally dommageable)! Please read this. I have only few elements in English because in fact it gives no more interesting elements about the situation. Please keep human, and accept discussion! THIS is the liberty of expression. And if you have time, please read about the position of diverse Islamic people about that, and of diverse Jewish people about that. (You know what is Fatwa ? You know Salman Rushdie? It is the same). Positions of teachers who work with these youngs (I did, I feel very sad for these young people we were not able to save from hate), position of parents. Understand that it was a multiple attack (Liberty of press, policy in democratic state, jewish people, on jogger on the street too) and multiple ethnic people (black, white, arab) and from different religions (musulam, chretien, atheism). This is what is France in 2015. If you were able to read in French, I would like you to read different papers too… We have multiple questions, and we try to have multiple response. The best we did : a pacific march and pursutie of thinking, not a declaration of world war. That was the first point 4 days after. Now we try to continue to live. To remember. We know what was Holocaust. All families know, and why it is a terrible point. And one cartoon (English) : I hope you will try to understand the position of each people. We have to live together on the planet, not to die, or murder other human beings. This is my basic position. Since I live in a democratic State and I am from an other one, I am happy to read books, to discuss, to have free conscious. Anna


    Comment by athena2727 — January 21, 2015 @ 10:04 am | Reply

    • Mocking religions may be in poor taste but other groups (eg Jews, Catholics, etc) don’t regard it as justification for murder.

      To argue that ” Hebdo should be obligated to accept responsibility for the consequences of its decision” is no different from saying a woman is responsible for being raped if she wears a short skirt.

      I agree however about the hypocrisy of some of the responses especially from other governments.


      Comment by JimH — January 21, 2015 @ 6:18 pm | Reply

      • Today other religions don’t regard it as justification for murder, but no so long ago many did. The Inquisition didn’t end until the very late 19th century, for example. Not too long ago they burned “nonbelievers” at the stake as witches. And it is worth emphasizing that Islam does not justify murder as the response to mockery. The murders were very extremists and not representative of Islam.

        Hebdo‘s actions also resulted in the deaths of people not in any way connected to Hebdo. They would not have died in the absence of Hebdo‘s provocations. Is it your view is that they are simply unimportant collateral damage?


        Comment by americaneditor — January 22, 2015 @ 4:28 am | Reply

  7. Thank you, Rich. Well said.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — January 21, 2015 @ 10:51 am | Reply

  8. PS : Feel free to ask about facts. I have my personal position, but I am able to explain what are the others positions and I know few more facts that it seems to be explained in US press. Some questions are still the same we have… 1) Why were buried French Jewish in Israel (one was the son of Rabbin from Tunis, Tunisie, and is in Israel too, is ti fear in Tunisie too? [This rabbin spoke on French TV with the mother of a French musulman soldier murdered 3 years ago by an other terrorist, who acted againts jewish school, it was a marvellous moment of humanity]). Fear of profanation? Pression of 1rst Minister? Religious reason (I tried to ask to a Jewish people to know if it is important, it seems that yes)? Other? All? 2) Why all these State dirigeants came in a pacific march organised by and for extrem “leftish” cartoonists, including 1rst minister of Israel, Abbas (Palestin), King of Jordany (!!!!) ? geopolitical situation in Middle-Orient (Daesh) ? Other? Because policemen were killed too? 3) Do you know about reactions for/against the murders themselves? Their famlies? Why? Where will (are) they buried? Why? How? How we (we French, with our differents political, ethical, sociological, religious positions) do explain these acts? Very interesting in fact…


    Comment by athena2727 — January 21, 2015 @ 11:08 am | Reply

  9. Thank you, Rich ­ thought provoking and well stated.



    Comment by luzlarana — January 21, 2015 @ 12:06 pm | Reply

  10. PS 3 : There is an online edition in English of the new Charlie Hebdo on Apple Store, Androïd, etc… Are you interested? I would be happy to offer it to you! You would have an ideal of (very bad) humour of Charlie Hebdo. And that they are thinking about what happened. That they draw (and wrote about pardon) 4 days after… Let me know! We could discuss about it after. Anna


    Comment by athena2727 — January 21, 2015 @ 3:55 pm | Reply

  11. I would just like to go on record as saying that I disagree completely with your column. Speaking for myself as a Christian, I see my religion disrespected, mocked, derided, blamed, insulted, and blasphemed regularly, but I would never kill anyone because of that. You are essentially saying that we must suspend freedom of expression when it refers to Islam because of the potential for a violent response from Muslim extremists. In that case, the extremists would be successful in suppressing freedom of expression among the rest of the population. No. I hope the French and the rest of the world will never muzzle themselves. And yes, Muslims who don’t like seeing their prophet or faith depicted or mocked will have to get used to it—just like the rest of us have done.


    Comment by Christina — January 22, 2015 @ 12:59 pm | Reply

    • I agree with Christina, and I wonder about the purpose of this post on a blog about editing. I am not a Christian, nor do I claim association with any other major religion. I think that free speech needs to be protected at all costs, and I admire the journalists who are willing to put their lives on the line rather than wearing a muzzle lest they offend someone. Blaming Charlie Hebdo is much like blaming a rape victim for wearing a short skirt and saying, “She should have known better.” It’s unacceptable to blame anyone but those who planned and carried out this horrific violence.


      Comment by Bobbi — January 23, 2015 @ 10:05 am | Reply

      • I just want to clarify that this blog is about whatever I want it to be about; it is not limited to editing — never has been, never will be. I do tag political pieces as On Politics so anyone who does not wish to read nonediting/-publishing posts can ignore them.


        Comment by americaneditor — January 23, 2015 @ 10:26 am | Reply

  12. Being not real big on blaming the victim I originally skipped this post altogether. Came back to look at the comments and we have an example of how it SHOULD work – keep it in the verbal arena! (Oh – blaming the victim for attacks by the victimizer on someone else – really? I don’t THINK so…)


    Comment by anansii — January 26, 2015 @ 6:15 pm | Reply

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