Rights and Exercise of Those Rights

The killings at French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in response to drawings of the Islamic prophet Mohammed are deplorable. Such terrorist attacks are always wrong.

In the wake of the shooting, many celebrities and others have claimed solidarity with the victims of the attack and defended the newspaper’s freedom to publish the cartoons that prompted the attack. While I don’t have great familiarity with the law in France, certainly in the United States our constitutionally protected freedom of speech means one has a protected right to ridicule the religious beliefs of others.

But having the right as a legal matter to do something does not mean one should always exercise that right. And it doesn’t mean others can’t criticize the decision to exercise it. I have no difficulty expressing outrage at the terrorist attack but I also take deep offense at what led to that attack.

I haven’t seen the cartoons in question. One commentator who has describes “a naked Muhammad on all fours…homosexual postures he has been depicted in….vaguely pornographic religious hate speech that rises to the intellectual level of a boys’ high school bathroom.”

Did the newspaper have the legal right to publish such cartoons? Sure. But what is the value in producing them? Who benefits? Why does anyone think public ridicule of the faith and beliefs of others is a good thing? We’re talking here about something much more offensive and egregious than wishing Christians “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” here – which some US commentators view as an attack on Christianity.

In a piece in the National Catholic Reporter yesterday, Phyllis Zagano said this, “Bullets are never the answer, but neither is ridicule. It is one thing to produce satire of a political or religious leader. It is quite another thing to defame or defile the sacred. Charlie Hebdo is not about rights and retaliation. Charlie Hebdo is about seeing the human in every person. That goes for both sides.”

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