It is another day of atrocities. Gunmen on the streets of Paris. At least thirteen people have been killed and the death toll may yet rise. Most people are rightly shocked, dismayed, heart-broken.
And let’s be very clear about this. The killings are abhorrent. They are not justified. They should not happen. The people responsible should be caught and brought to justice.
There are elements of this story that leave me deeply uncomfortable. This is not simply a case of black and white, monsters versus innocents, bad versus good.
Many French people are seeing this as an attack on their way of life, their core values. Freedom of speech is a part of the national psyche. It is a value that they hold very dear. The terrorist didn’t just attack a satirical magazine – they attacked the nation’s values.
Hence all the defiant “I am Charlie” rhetoric with people holding pens aloft. They are saying that then pen is mightier than the sword, and by implication the assault rifle or the bomb. We must protect the right of free speech.
This is where I start to have a problem. At the heart of this incident is a magazine which regularly publishes cartoons attacking world religions. This includes printing images of the prophet Muhammad, which some nations and some people consider to be prohibited.
So what the “I am Charlie” crowd are saying is that their right to free speech is more important than other people’s rights not to have pictures of Muhammad published.
If we accept that a nation’s values should be respected, then that should apply to all nations. We can’t pick and choose.
There’s another problem. Freedom of speech isn’t an absolute. We apply restrictions to what can be published. Most countries ban pornographic images of children, scenes of violence, material that could be held to be slander and libel.
Heck, we even get hot under the collar about gender neutrality, which means that we say “police officer” instead of “police man”.
In other words, we ban things that we find offensive or politically incorrect. And yet we allow material which some people find deeply offensive on religious grounds, such as images of Muhammad.
This is deeply hypocritical. Not only are we saying that my nation’s values are somehow better than your nation’s values. We are also allowing ourselves exceptions to our own values when it suits us.
That is why I am saying that I am emphatically NOT Charlie. I abhor and detest the violence which happened yesterday. But equally I cannot agree with a magazine publishing images that a large part of the world finds offensive.
We do need to find an answer to the divisions in the world. We need to find a way of both protecting free speech and respecting the rights of people to practice their religions.
But we are not going to do this by waving pens around. Or by waving guns around.
The people who are attacking us are not doing it without reason. They are attacking us because they believe that we have attacked them, whether this is by a series of wars in the Middle East or attacks on their religious beliefs, such as the cartoons produced by Charlie Hebdo.
The answer is not always to reach for a bigger stick. We also have to recognise that they may have a point.
In some versions of this story we are the monsters.