February 23, 2020

Charlie Hebdo: The French Sony Complex

“In France, there is a principle of freedom of expression, which should not be undermined. In the present context, given this absurd video that has been aired, strong emotions have been awakened in many Muslim countries. Is it really sensible or intelligent to pour oil on the fire?” – French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (2012)

“It may sound pompous, but I'd rather die standing than live on my knees.” – Stéphane Charbonnier, the late editor of Charlie Hebdo. He was killed this week by radical Muslim terrorists.


If I could choose a day to be in France, it would be next Wednesday so that I could buy one of the estimated one million copies of Charlie Hebdo that will be on the racks. I have lived in two countries during periods of national mourning (the U.S. after 9/11 and Israel after Rabin’s assassination), and it is touching to see a nation unite in common grief. I have followed the French press for many years, and had fervently hoped that the firebombing of the Charlie Hebdo offices in 2011 would be the last attack on the satirical magazine. Alas, it was not to be.

Like any sensible person, I was appalled at the barbarity on display in Paris this week. If it were up to me, the suspects would be rounded up, tried, and executed. I have delivered many speeches condemning terrorism on behalf of Jewish organizations, and fervently hope that the killings will not deter the French government from actively participating in the battle against terrorism worldwide. That said, as a member of a religion that, like Judaism, has been publicly ridiculed and attacked, I’ve found myself agreeing with the French foreign minister’s view of Charlie Hebdo’s many attempts to stick its thumb in the eyes of Muslims worldwide.

Nothing, of course, justifies murdering people who publish things that you dislike. However, at the risk of speaking ill of the dead, I believe that when weighing certain actions, the question in today’s world is not always whether one has a right to do something, but whether it is in fact wise to do it. I do not believe that the French government (or any other government, for that matter) should seek to accommodate the demands of Muslims who wish to impose their religion on others, or whose religious practices disrupt public order. If the French want to ban the public wearing of a full veil for security reasons, that’s fine with me. On the other hand, I see absolutely no reason for a French magazine to publish insulting drawings of Muhammad – in a country with millions of Muslims — in order to deliberately enrage Muslims worldwide. Ditto for insulting images of Jesus, the Pope, etc. Should the magazine have the right to publish the drawings? Of course. Was it wise for it to do so? I do not believe that it was.

By all appearances, the editors at Charlie Hebdo had what I call the Sony complex. Sony Pictures Studios has the talent and resources to make movies on virtually any subject. Did Sony have the right to make a silly movie ridiculing a paranoid dictator armed with nukes? Sure it did. Was it wise for Sony executives to green-light the movie? In hindsight, I’m sure they would have made a different choice.

I don’t make these points in order to argue that the cyber attack on Sony was in any way justified. It’s just that I wonder sometimes how the Sony executives expected the object of their ridicule to react when he learned of the project. It would be a wonderful world indeed if everyone could legitimately exercise his rights without fear of consequences, but that is not the world that we live in. I once had a spirited conversation with a feminist who argued that she should be able to stroll in a string bikini past a large construction area with dozens of workers without receiving any catcalls or other unwanted attention, because men should be able to control themselves. Maybe they should, but nothing in my life experience indicates that construction workers would ignore a bikini-clad female in their sight. Does that mean that she would deserve to be verbally assaulted as she walked by? Absolutely not, but it does mean that she may have used very poor judgment.

Twice a year anti-Mormon protesters gather on Temple Square in Salt Lake City armed with placards and bullhorns in order to harass thousands of Mormons attending General Conference. Occasionally a protester will wear temple clothing in an attempt to ridicule our most sacred ordinances. Do they have a right to do this? Well, I guess they do. However, their gratuitous efforts to provoke are both unnecessary and puerile.

I regret very much that Mr. Charbonnier and his colleagues died this week for a cause – freedom of expression – in which they deeply believed. I was overjoyed that the magazine will continue to be published, and wish it much success in the future. However, I will hope and pray that the editors will make wise content choices. When I look at the offensive, silly caricatures of Muhammad published in past editions of Charlie Hebdo and realize that they just cost a dozen people their lives, I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to ask whether it was all worth it. For me, the answer is a definite non.