I skipped posting last month because I was rushing to get ready for a trip and didn’t have time to sort out my thoughts regarding what I wanted to write about: the Sony Hack. Now tragedy provides renewed reason to address the issue of freedom of speech. The terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo office and kosher market that killed 17 people is horrific for France and all those connected to the victims, but it also has grave implications for us here, in the country that puts freedom of speech at the top of its list of civil rights. A country which, shamefully, did not send one high-level representative to march with forty other world leaders in Paris on Sunday.
The attack in Paris isn’t, of course, going to stifle free speech. Magazines all over the world are reposting controversial cartoons from Charlie Hebdo covers. This week, surviving staffers will publish a million copies of the magazine, as opposed to its normal circulation of fewer than 50,000. I am most in awe of the tens of thousands of people who immediately took to the cold, wet streets of Paris to show support for the victims and for free speech itself—even as the killers were still at large. I couldn’t help but notice the difference between that and the way many in Hollywood initially cowered at threats by the Guardians of Peace if the movie “The Interview” was shown. Fortunately, courage prevailed in the form of independent theater owners who were at the forefront of a shift in attitude, and eventually Sony (and major theater chains) released the movie in all its silliness.
I am not minimizing the real concerns that one must have over public and personal safety, such as potential violence at a movie theater. One of the worst massacres in this country happened at a movie theater in Colorado in 2012. As a mother I have to work daily to not be ruled by fear that something will happen to my children. I wrote about such fears in a previous post. But ultimately we have to move forward and decide how we’re going to live our lives. Are we going to be ruled by fear? And just as importantly, are we going to be ruled by anger and hatred? Anger and outrage is essential in the wake of a brutal and heinous act, but what do we do with it then? Do we just ‘fume and forget’ as we do every time a tragedy like this happens?
When I looked up what had been done about gun violence since the theater shooting in Aurora, I was shocked to learn the answer: Nothing. At least nothing of substance. CNN reports there has been a Newtown-like shooting every five weeks since the Sandy Hook massacre (a conservative estimate). Everyone’s afraid to even touch the issue of gun violence. I’ve tried to talk about it with friends from time to time and gotten meek responses, or none at all. I brought up the issue as benignly as possible to one prominent local politician, and he ducked away the moment he could, taking cover behind a confused caterer.
Why is there such little constructive dialogue in this country? The NRA repeatedly takes a hardline stance—even about talking about guns—for example by backing Florida laws like Docs vs. Glocks, which forbids doctors from asking patients about whether they own firearms. This, in spite of the fact that The New England Journal of Medicine reports that when doctors, like pediatricians, talk to parents about the risk of keeping firearms in a home, it leads to a significant increase in safe storage practices. According to the NEJM, keeping guns locked and unloaded reduces the risk of gun injury by 70%. Pediatricians routinely ask about car seats and bicycle helmets—why not guns?
A female police officer I spoke to said that when her middle school daughter has friends over, the parents routinely drop their kids off without even coming to the door and meeting her—and only one person has ever asked how guns are kept in the house, in spite of the fact that both parents are cops. Why can’t we talk about guns? We’re not arguing gun freedom or no gun freedom. It’s not either or—the fact is, we already limit guns. The question is whether or not society would benefit from further restrictions. No one is talking about taking guns away completely, along with our Second Amendment. But as with driving, another instance where a powerful tool can be potentially destructive, we have regulations that serve the greater good. Let’s have some productive and constructive discussions about where to draw the line.
The reason we can’t talk is because everyone is caught up in demonizing the other side, something that happens often with Islam, especially on the freewheeling Internet. When Nicholas Kristof suggested in the New York Times that not all 1.6 billion Muslims in the world are complicit in the violence perpetrated by extremists like the ones who committed the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, the message boards were full of thrashings for his liberal apologism. One person posted, “When a Pew poll in Egypt finds that a majority of Muslims there think death is an appropriate punishment for “blasphemy”, there is something radically, unalterably wrong with that religion and culture.” On BusinessWeek message boards, posts were more vulgar, with a number of people constructively suggesting we “just nuke ’em all.”
Words aren’t inherently bad. Neither are guns. They are both tools. But we have to be responsible with our tools. We can’t throw them around carelessly. As a writer, I am a staunch defender of free speech. But with freedom comes responsibility. That means considering our intentions and checking facts. I realize we don’t always have time to look up research about Islam before making a comment, but let’s be responsible consumers and users of social media and not assume that everything we read is true. There’s far too much drive-by posting, which is more akin to ‘pigeon chess’ than actual debate.
The problem with lingering too long in our anger over injustice is that it can allow us to feel like we’ve done something about it—when all we’ve done is fume. Doing something doesn’t have to be tackling the entire issue of gun control. It can be as simple as reading an article and discussing it at book club. It can be a conversation with that neighbor who you know loves hunting on weekends. It’s simply about engaging the topic, engaging the other side. Because no matter how much we might wish it to be different, the ‘other side’ isn’t going anywhere. We all have to be on this journey together. As John F. Kennedy said, “Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.” The irony is that so many of the criticisms I’ve heard about Islam focus on how intolerant a religion it is. I just can’t tolerate how intolerant they are! Demonizing the other side doesn’t make us stronger; it only ensures there is no constructive dialogue. If we shut down communication, we only ensure things stay exactly as they are.
Believe me, I don’t like to add to my list of things to do, mental or physical. After reading for hours about the Paris shooting, I wanted nothing more than to have a glass of wine (you know, in solidarity with the French) and play Candy Crush Saga. But if I want there to be increased understanding in the world, don’t I have to try to understand? Who else is going to do it? So I decided to take a moment to check the Pew website that some of the posts mentioned to see if there was indeed information about large numbers of Muslims condoning death for the crime of blasphemy. What I found was an extensive report indicating that the majority of Muslims are, in fact, moderate and reasonable. In the matter of extremist violence the report was very clear: “Muslims around the world strongly reject violence in the name of Islam. . . in most countries, the prevailing view is that such acts are never justified as a means of defending Islam from its enemies.” I was glad I took a moment to look that up before tweeting idiotically like Rupert Murdoch, who said that all Muslims are responsible for not destroying the jihadists among them. By that logic, all Christians are responsible for the KKK.
I don’t yet know what can be done about Islamic extremists, or about mass shootings, but I do know the rest of us are weaker if we waste our energy fuming. With the stakes so high, I think it’s crucial that we ask ourselves what we really want. Do we want things to change? Or do we spend all our time telling tales like Shakespeare’s idiot, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?”