Once again, the publication of anti-Islamic cartoons has yielded senseless violence perpetrated by extremists who haven’t accepted the fact that their personal religious code cannot be foisted upon those who do not share it. Or can it be foisted? If the behavior of the mainstream media in the wake of this terrorism is any indication, the men who murdered a dozen people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris on Wednesday have every reason to believe that the free press, which it has the effrontery to call itself, will fall in line with their narrow conception of what constitutes acceptable expression, freedom of speech be damned.
While no official tally is being kept, at a glance it seems the preponderance of news outlets that have published the “offensive” cartoons in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo have been upstart members of the digital media: BuzzFeed, Gawker, Mic, this publication, and others. Meanwhile, well-funded members of the old guard, who have far more resources to protect themselves against potential backlash as subsidiaries of multi-billion dollar conglomerates, have balked at the idea of showing the very images that served as the catalyst for the deadliest terror attack in France since Algerian independence. These organizations include the Associated Press, CNN, the Telegraph, and The New York Daily News.
An internal CNN email obtained by Politico instructed staff on how to deal with the cartoons. Crafted by CNN’s editorial director, the email reads like a parody of what such a memo would look like, as written by The Onion:
Although we are not at this time showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet considered offensive by many Muslims, platforms are encouraged to verbally describe the cartoons in detail. This is key to understanding the nature of the attack on the magazine and the tension between free expression and respect for religion.
Video or stills of street protests showing Parisians holding up copies of the offensive cartoons, if shot wide, are also OK. Avoid close-ups of the cartoons that make them clearly legible.
It’s also OK to show most of the protest cartoons making the rounds online, though care should be taken to avoid examples that include within them detailed depictions of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
How absurd. In a time and place where the cartoons are easily accessible online, CNN — “the most trusted name in news” — will gladly bring viewers up to speed on the controversy by having Wolf Blitzer monotone them to death as he “verbally describe[s] the cartoons in detail.”
The problem with the mainstream press not showing “offensive” cartoons isn’t just that it’s cowardly, but that it cultivates and even encourages an atmosphere in which attacks like the Paris slaughter can occur. By shielding viewers from unflattering images of Islam’s sacred cows, the media establishes censorship as the norm. Thus, when a media organization bucks the trend, it stands out as brilliantly as a red cape in a bullring.
In combating the murder of cartoonists, filmmakers, and others who run afoul of Islamic theocrackpots, the answer isn’t more censorship, but less, as in none. As Chez Pazienza pointed out in his piece featuring the cartoons deemed haram, “They can’t kill everyone.” Indeed, the proliferation of such “offensive” cartoons can only serve to desensitize the tender gag reflex that so many Muslims have inherited from a tradition that tells them that pictures — mere drawings — of their powerful prophet are “insulting” to Islam.
But ideologies can’t be insulted, only people. And while insults aren’t pleasant, no one may legitimately claim the right to be free from that which they find insulting or offensive, including a cartoon. Far too many have never learned the timeless axiom that sticks and stones may break Muslim bones, but a drawing of the prophet can’t possibly hurt them. After all, no one ever died after seeing a cartoon, except for those killed by fanatics who were still well enough to murder after viewing it.