What words, images, and principles are you willing to die for?
That's the question (hereafter 'The Question') after last week's assassination of Charlie Hebdo's editorial staff and cartoonists posed to those of us -- e.g., journalists, academics, cartoonists, publicists, politicians, artists, etc. -- that live by peddling words and images to various audiences. It's not a new question; earlier in the week I called attention to the fate of Socrates, and it has been revived even in the relatively law-abiding, gun-poor environments of Northwestern Europe with the assasinations of politicians (e.g., Olof Palme; Pim Fortuyn), aspiring politicians (Utøya island massacre), and political commentators (Theo Van Gogh).* Such targets -- the victims of let's call them, 'politicized crimes' -- have in common with more ordinary terror attacks that they are 'soft,' that is, that they are relatively unprotected and that the moment of attack is relatively unexpected. But unlike ordinary victims of terror, the victims of politicized crimes draw attention to themselves by their active construction of the public sphere.+ The Question has become ever more acute with the rise of suicide bombers and other politicized killers that are very evidently willing to die for their principles.
The whole idea of legally protected freedom of expression is designed to diffuse The Question. If only the very brave or foolish participate in the public sphere then it is likely that all kinds of insights and positions never get articulated with the care and expertise required to guide the life of and constitute the polity. But this open public sphere requires not just a government to live by its own rules, but also capability and willingness to protect its own public sphere by having a monopoly on violence (and arms). While undoubtedly more can be done to secure safe participation in a public sphere, there is in governments a tendency for policing and security-measures overreach, which, paradoxically undermines an open public sphere and, indirectly, Liberal society.
An exclusive focus on security does not address the reasons why people may wish to kill (and die) for their beliefs. Political terrorists are not random natural facts; they are (if we leave aside the children among them) agents that are animated by a whole host of commitments, feelings, aspirations, and ideologies. That is to say, while undoubtedly there are many security-driven ways of preventing political attacks, these do nothing to undermine and may, perhaps, reinforce the experienced intentional world(s)** of would-be-politicized-killers.
This last point is especially important because many of the politicized killers are not strange, undercover invaders from foreign places. Rather they are home-grown; they have turned militant despite (perhaps because of) being quite familiar with the norms, aspirations, and even rewards of an arms-free public sphere. I leave it to the social scientists to help explain various social sources of militancy among a subset of those born in the European West. But part of the issue is also ideology. The nub of the matter is that evidently our Western normative and social commitments are displaced at the level of individual psychology among part(s) of the population.
It's at this point of the analysis that nearly all commentators focus on the varieties of militant Islam, which quite evidently generates motivational power to some people to kill and die for its principles. As I noted a few days ago, Justin Smith, an eminent philosophical scholar who lives and works in Paris, has been among the most intelligent and interesting philosophical commentators on the assassination of the editorial staff of Charlie Hebdo. He puts his point as follows:
it's a great shame that political Islamism today perceives an equivalence between the symbolic and the real that make an act of vengeance of this scale seem like a fair trade. I recall that one horrible, amateur film ridiculing Mohammed a few years ago; they interviewed some kid in Egypt whose reaction was: 'Well, how would you feel if we made a movie making fun of, say, Abraham Lincoln?' He sincerely didn't understand that no one would care.
Today when the assassins were fleeing toward their getaway car, they shouted: On a vengé le prophète Mohammed. On a tué Charlie Hebdo.++ One cannot help but think: there is a double confusion here. Not just one but two fictional characters have been mistaken for real people. And twelve real people have been killed as a result.--Justin Smith.
Now unlike most commentators, in his blog posts Smith is clear that Charlie Hebdo offered not just a willingness to die (Stéphane Charbonnier has been quite explicit about this), but as Smith explains (here, here, here), an alternative, life-affirming even joyous and raunchy set of commitments that challenged many forms of powers and ideology (including Islamic ones) at the level of affect as much as reason.
Even so, the passage quoted from Smith contains some missteps. Smith's "political Islam" fails to do justice to the Islamic political movements (inside and outside of Europe) that do not promote or condone (even tacitly) the killing of folk in the European public sphere. Given that there are political movements in Europe that are extremely intolerant/hostile toward all of Islam (and Smith is clearly no fan of these movements), Smith's wording is unfortunate.
More important, there is, in fact, no opposition between the "symbolic and the real." (There is an opposition between the real and the illusory.) In particular, when we are dealing with social reality, the symbolic and the real can coincide, but need not. This connects to another, more serious misstep in Smith's analysis. Muḥammad is not a fictional character. He was a historical figure who (among other social scripts (recall)) played political and religious role(s) in his own life and thereafter. The symbolic is constituted (albeit non-exhaustively) by such roles. (It is not impossible that a fictional Muhammad could also play such symbolic roles, but that's not my concern.) The symbolic matters here because it's what animates or gives meaning to the experienced intentional world of individuals, including the would-be-killers and those that sympathize with them.
So Smith is absolutely right that the "Egyptian kid" in his example fails to understand the symbolic organization and commitments of contemporary Americans. Having said that, plenty of Americans get very upset about flag-burning; so Smith's Egyptian kid could have found a better example for his case. The point here is not that every society has symbols it is touchy about (although it is not irrelevant); rather it misses the point to say about such a symbol, 'oh well, it's just fictional.'
Furthermore, Smith is right to note (and we can nod to Nietzsche's analysis of Lex Talionis) that in revenge-killing there is an element of trade that restores a balance within a community. Despite the fact that the killers of Charlie Hebdo's editorial staff and cartoonists do not conform to and violently transgress the laws of the land, their words, if accurately quoted, suggests that they, too, recognize, perhaps implicitly, that they belong to a community in which their victims play a symbolic (even sacrificial) role.
Much to my surprise Smith insists that contemporary Jihadists "are entirely unable to interpret the Charlie Hebdo cartoons." (His ire is also directed at professors at American universities, but I will ignore them here.) This strikes me as confused about the nature of the symbolic. Images play multiple roles and functions in different symbolic systems/organisations sometimes simultaneously--some philosophers, of course, cannot abide multiplicity of meaning, but if they allow such a possibility cartoons would be on the very short-list. There is no true interpretation of the symbolic. (To avoid confusion: there are symbolic systems, of course, that are governed by truth.) While we can allow that the Jihadists failed to understand all the intended complexities of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, they discerned in some of these images satire (and worse) of their commitments.+++
Finally, it's possible, of course, that one can die because of a mistaken interpretation of one's words, images, and principles. That's the stuff (with a nod to Oedipus) of tragedy. If one participates in the public sphere with highly affective images and words that mistake is probably not unexpected. It is also possible -- I think this happened to Stéphane Charbonnier -- that one dies both for a principle one embraces and for a hostile interpretation of one's work that is offered from a vantage point one does not share.