The massacre of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris on January 7 was an attempt to impose the assassin’s veto. Where the heckler’s veto says merely “I will shout you down,” the assassin’s version is “dare to express that and we will kill you.” Instead of the academic’s metaphorical “publish or perish” we have the Kouachi brothers’ “publish and perish.” In the quarter-century since the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, this has become one of the largest threats to free speech in the West, and certainly the most extreme.
Currently, this threat comes mainly from Islamist killers, but the Italian mafia use it too. We must be concerned about the underlying religious and political ideology, but what changes everything is the use of violence to impose your taboos. If extreme Islamist views were advanced by entirely peaceful means, there would still be an issue, but it would not be this issue. If Buddhists, nationalists, or mafiosi kill people, or credibly threaten to kill them, simply to stop the expression of certain views or tastes, that is also the assassin’s veto.
Working out how to defeat the assassin’s veto is one of the great challenges of our time. Among the many questions that arise is whether or not to republish images at which fanatics have chosen to take such violent offense that they murder those who made them. Was there an editor in the West who did not agonize over the republication question in the hours and days after the massacre? The New York Times reported that its executive editor, Dean Baquet, spent “about half of my day” doing so, and, by his own account, changed his mind twice. At The Guardian in London, an intense debate rolled all through Thursday. In the week that followed, the record of who did or did not publish became itself a major news story. “To print or not to print,” as the London Evening Standard rather predictably put it.
I became closely involved in this debate because, on the morning after the attack, I wrote an appeal for a week of solidarity in which a broad range of European newspapers, broadcasters, and bloggers would republish carefully selected cartoon covers from Charlie Hebdo—by no means just those of Muhammad—with a commentary explaining why they were doing so. I suggested that readers and viewers should be warned in advance that the cartoons would be shown, but the images should not be pixelated or redacted. I gave two main reasons for this initiative: to show that violent intimidation of free expression would not work and to enable readers to make up their own minds. The criterion of newsworthiness was clearly met: there was an overwhelming public interest in readers (viewers, Internet users) having the relevant information. And the only way…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.