Freedom of Speech and Death

2015-01-09 13:19

I was strangely cocooned the other day when I heard the news of the massacre in Paris. As it happened I was at Red Cross Children’s in Cape Town where my daughter is being treated for Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. In the ward next to her are children who are fighting the ultimate battle. Most have brain tumours and all are pretty much in a life-threatening situation. The families are Christians and Muslims, with our child being the only Jew in the ward.

I read the tweet announcing the breaking news, looked around, and waited for others to do the same. I anticipated how the next few hours would unfold and the discomfort that everyone would feel, knowing full well that this was not the environment to engage these matters. The reaction didn’t come and I am not sure if anyone in the confines of that sacred space even registered the event.

Because, in a ward where children are struggling to survive, no one cares about freedom of speech and about offensive cartoons.

The loss of lives in Paris is horrendous, vile and nauseating. There is no justification, no explanation and no “Buts”. It is a further manifestation of a frightening trend that will have us living in added fear. And as many times as we tweet and Facebook and hashtag “Je suis Charlie”, there is not a cartoonist or blogger in the world who will not think twice about making light of the Prophet. And that means that they have won. As I write this, Saudi blogger, Raif Baddawi  has been imprisoned for two years and will receive 1000 lashes ( 50 lashes each week for 20  weeks) in public, for having an open dialogue on various “sensitive” issues. And although this is not the same as murdering people whilst they work, it certainly is a step in that direction.

This is not about freedom of speech alone. It is about terror. It is simply about terrorizing people into submission. Into conforming to a mode of behaviour deemed acceptable by Islamic fundamentalists.  And until this is dealt with in harshest terms, the shadow of this beast will continue to hide in the corner of our rooms.

The freedom to say and print whatever you choose is not an absolute. Hate speech, defamation and libel are unacceptable should be challenged. As Jews we are further constrained by laws of “lashon harah” which are an essential component of our faith. These laws are complex and uncomfortable at times and part of the blessing of being a thinking human is be able to debate and understand these complexities. They cannot be simplified by a bullet or a whip.

Since the killings I have not seen the cartoons that offended. I have seen excellent and thought provoking ones about the power of the pen and resistance to the bullet. But I have not seen the offending cartoons that affectively sentence the 12  to their deaths. Surely the only way to resist the terror is for every paper and every online site to print and reprint and then print again, each of the offending cartoons? So that when the next terrorists debate their actions, they will know that they caused the world to see the very items that they murdering for? But my concern is that some part of all of us is just that little bit afraid, even if we say we aren’t.

The children’s ward is not a place to debate seemingly privileged issues like freedom of expression. But it is a place to focus on life and the precious gift that it is. Paris was not about freedom of expression. It was about murder and terror and death. And that is most certainly something we all should spend a moment thinking about, no matter our circumstances.

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