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Charlie Hebdo massacre is an assault on all of us

A man holds wearing a sticker reading in

A man holds wearing a sticker reading in French, "I am Charlie", holds a candle during a gathering at the Place de la Republique (Republic square) in Paris, on Jan. 7, 2015, following an attack by unknown gunmen on the offices of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. Credit: Getty Images / Martin Bureau

This piece is republished with permission from spiked, a UK-based online magazine.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre is the barbaric conclusion to the new intolerance.

Today is a dark day for Europe. The barbaric assault on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is an attack most immediately on the journalists and cartoonists who worked there, 12 of whom are dead, executed in cold blood for the ‘crime’ of saying what they think. But this horrific act was also an attack on Europe itself, on all of us, on our fundamental right to freedom of thought and speech. None of us can feel the pain currently being felt by the friends and families of the murdered journalists and illustrators - but all of us should feel assaulted by this massacre, for it is designed to chill us and make us cower, to make us censor ourselves or else suffer the consequences.

The staff of Charlie Hebdo have been punished in the most violent way imaginable for daring to be provocative, offensive, blasphemous. In an echo of the pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment fashion for torturing and executing those who blasphemed against God and orthodoxy, they have been killed for mocking Muhammad, for failing to show respect to a particular religion and its icons.

Our response should be to reaffirm our commitment to freedom of speech and most importantly to the right to be offensive, to provoke, to mock and ridicule any belief system we want.

From John Wilkes’ royalty-bashing pamphlets to Thomas Paine’s questioning of religion, offending gods and kings, kicking against the orthodoxies of one’s age, has been central to the Enlightenment, to the birth of the modern world.

To fail to offer solidarity to Charlie Hebdo and other modern offenders against religious or political correctness would be to turn the clock back on the Enlightenment itself and propel Europe back into an era of self-silencing and moral obedience.

Some will be tempted to see the assault on Charlie Hebdo as an entirely foreign act, alien to the values of the French Republic, the behaviour of the adherents to a faraway Islamist death cult. But that would be wrong.

For the tragic fact is that this barbarism fits a depressing pattern in modern Europe. It speaks to the modern trend for seeking to destroy, crush or censor commentary, art or literature that offends small groups of people. It is a more extreme form - a far more extreme form - of something that has become tragically commonplace: the waging of intolerant wars against things judged by certain people to be offensive.

Whether it’s mobs successfully having art exhibitions shut down or online gangs getting newspaper articles withdrawn or TV shows pulled, ours is an era in which the feelings of the offended are all too often elevated above the freedoms of thought and expression. The Paris massacre is a fouler, bloodier version of this urge to destroy material that offends people’s sensibilities.

The difference between the everyday war on offensiveness and this terrible murder of ‘offensive’ journalists is one of gravity and bloodiness, not of moral intent: in all cases the arrogant aim is to silence, by pressure or threats or force, those who say things you don’t like.

This new culture has given people and groups across Europe a licence to take offence and a feeling of moral authority to do away with offensive ideas or images; it has inflamed intolerance, everywhere from Twitter to universities to mosques. Indeed,Charlie Hebdo hasn’t only been violently attacked (today and also in 2011, when its offices were burnt down) - it has also been sued by Muslim groups under actual French laws, against blasphemy and incitement.

Across Europe, law itself, as well as the new culture of offence-taking and self-censorship in response to pressure, now actively invites people to act on their feelings of offence and to use power to destroy speech that they hate.

Enough. The Paris massacre shows us the terrible dangers of this new Endarkenment, this retreat from freedom of thought and speech and this unleashing of a new, seemingly PC intolerance.

The best, most civilised response to this barbaric act is to promise that we will defend freedom of speech every time it is threatened, stop kowtowing to the offended, and stand up to every mob, campaign group, thug and gunman that think they have the right to silence others.

That’s what spiked plans to do - to embolden even further our fight for the right to be offensive, in memory of the journalists at Charlie Hebdo and in the name of freedom and Enlightenment.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked, UK-based online current-affairs magazine. Visit the original piece.