Unifying Symbols

The outpouring of solidarity, righteous anger, and commitment to freedoms of speech and the press exhibited in the recent Je suis Charlie demonstrations following the terroristic attacks in Paris reminded me of a similar emotional response after the 9/11 attacks on our homeland.

Andrea and I attended a performance of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on the University of Georgia campus in Athens a few days after 9/11. The orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Robert Spano, opened the program with an unscheduled performance of The Star Spangled Banner. Maestro Spano led the standing audience in singing with the orchestra, who had stood with the dramatic opening kettledrum roll. I have never heard a more rousing or emotion-packed rendition of our national anthem. Many people openly wept as they sang in remembrance of the victims of the attacks. I saw faces lighted with a fierce determination that our great country would prevail in the war thrust upon us. The spirit of unity in our grief and resolve electrified all of us. The cheering and applause continued for at least 10 minutes after the anthem ended.

I had many reservations about POTUS George W. Bush but not in his, and his administration, calling a spade a spade. In the months that followed the attack, no one doubted the clarity of language the President and members of his administration used to describe the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks: Islamic terrorists. I have distinct memories that Islam as a whole was not condemned for the attacks, except by some of our more misguided religious fundamentalists, extreme right wing politicians, and bloviators. Yes, many rational commentators and law enforcement officials stated that American Islamists should be forthright in quickly informing the FBI about potential terrorists within Islamic communities and mosques. I have read presumably accurate reports that law enforcement agencies continue to be furnished with such crucial information used to forestall more attacks on our homeland and interests abroad.

Many French politicians, commentators, and ordinary citizens used precise language to describe the source of the Paris attacks, e.g., Radical Islam. How can the perpetrators be described in any other way? Nevertheless, POTUS Obama and his administration have reservations about calling a spade a spade or, as the French say, call a cat a cat. Our president and his spokespersons seem incapable of linking two relevant descriptors together, Radical Islamists or Islamist Terrorists. Perhaps, the intent is at least two-fold: (1) To assert that the attacks had nothing to do with the great body of Islam and (2) Thereby, to prevent Muslims in the US and around the world from being isolated, even subjected to vigilantism. Does any rational person believe the President’s assertions hide the reality of the situation? Why couldn’t POTUS Obama simply say, “Radical Islamists were responsible for the attacks in Paris and other locations?” Linkage of the two pertinent descriptors automatically excludes the great majority of Muslims from overt responsibility for the attacks.

The terrorists themselves claimed that they acted to revenge the cartoonish depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in the Charlie Hebdo magazine, which is published in Paris. I used the current all-purpose information source, the Internet, to look at many of these cartoonssome with English translations of the captions. I chuckled at a few of the cartoons but found the great majority of them puerile, adolescent in the sense of junior high schoolyard and bathroom humor, and absolutely not funny.

Charlie Hebdo bills itself as a satirical magazine, an equal opportunity insulter of all religions and politicians in order to make readers conscious of institutional pretense. Despite this claim of satirical purpose, the cartoons are not satirical in the best sense of the word and literary device. None of the cartoons I saw rose to the level of literary satire exemplified by Dr. (of Divinity) Jonathan Swift in his A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick. Swift suggested the poor Irish could ease their economic troubles by selling their many children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. This satire, which mocked heartless attitudes toward the poor as well as the English government’s Irish policy in general during the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, may have angered readers but did make them think. The Charlie Hebdo cartons only angered but do not, to me, have lasting social value.

My distaste for the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and the violence they allegedly perpetrated, notwithstanding, I would not support any effort to restrict such examples of free speech. I thoroughly disagree with Pope Frances’ assertion that, “One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith.” Of course we can insult faith and religious leaders under the doctrine of unrestricted freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Even so, simply because we have the freedom to insult doesn’t necessarily mean we should be insulting. We might argue that operating under the influence of our better angels would preclude such insults.

Even if we don’t invoke our better angels, we recognize that the doctrine of free speech is not unrestricted. Most of us are familiar with how Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes spoke cogently to this point: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” Although often and currently abused, our government has great interest in restricting some aspects of free speech and freedom of the press for national defense purposes. Who in their right mind would publish our nuclear launch codes or nuclear missile targeting data? Oh, I forgot about William Snowden and Anonymous.

We may contend we’re not at war with Islam itself but a great point of contention exists with many Muslims and our Constitution. We preach the virtues of assimilating peoples from foreign lands into our society. My family provides an example as I described in a previous post. Absorbing immigrants can enrich our society, however not when those immigrants insist, even demand, that our society must allow religious actions that conflict with our democratic values. We need look no further than how many Muslims view circumcision of young girls as an inherent religious or cultural right.

We are going though difficult times and probably will face even more serious, perhaps existential, threats to our nation and the other western democracies. We won’t weather the storms unless we demand clarity of language that promotes resoluteness of purpose.

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