It's been fascinating to watch a right like free speech, so often associated with America, take on such global heft over the last few months, particularly after the terrorist assault on French magazine Charlie Hebdo last week. When the Pope - the leader of an institution not known for its progressive stance on civil rights - publicly states that liberty of expression keeps the world out of danger, you know that it doesn't belong to us anymore.
It's been equally fascinating to watch how differently this ideal has been approached in the U.S. and abroad. In Ferguson, MO, the police cracked down so hard on journalists covering the protests there (arrests, confiscation of cameras, nearly arresting CNN anchors on air) that it became a global news story. They only relented after the protests themselves started to wane. Sony - an American studio owned by a Japanese company - pulled The Interview from release after threats were made by the group that hacked the studio. They released the film only after it was determined that the the terrorist threats had no basis in reality. On the other hand, Charlie Hebdo doubled down on its ethos of slaying sacred cows; a mere week after the attack, the French periodical released a new issue featuring a cartoon of the prophet on the cover holding a "Je Suis Charlie" sign. Just to recap: the reason Al-Qaida gunmen stormed Charlie Hebdo to begin with and killed twelve people, including four cartoonists, was because the magazine had dared to show illustrations of the prophet Muhammed, a direct refutation of the Quran and a sin punishable by death according to certain radical strains of Islam. And here they are doing it again. That's a ballsy move and it makes America look gutless and cowardly by comparison.
It also doesn't help America's image as a bastion of freedom when no high ranking administration officials show up to a massive peace rally in Paris (over 3 million people!) designed to condemn terrorism and show support for free speech. The rally was fronted by David Cameron, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Mahmoud Abbas, world leaders who don't exactly have great track records when it comes to honoring speech and press freedoms, but who seem to know that It's never a bad bet to show your support of free speech anyway. Talk about cognitive dissonance.
We all agree that we can't let terrorists dictate what we can say and hear. The way Charlie Hebdo has dealt with the terrorists has really shifted the narrative away from us in a good way. While the U.S. should be much better at calling out aggressively stupid behavior that has larger implications for the country (like President Obama slamming Sony for pulling The Interview), America doesn't always have to be at the front of the pack. I'm glad to see Charlie Hebdo reshape the story in a way that Sony and the police officers in Ferguson couldn't. We can learn a lot from them and I for one will be paying close attention to what happens next.