On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I heard a satirical stand-up comedian say the following (and I’m paraphrasing here): “There are so many different terrorist groups now that we don’t know who to fight any longer. We should let them quarrel among themselves like a knockout round and then fight the winner.”
Inadvertently, he put his finger right on the problem. After listening to all the possible explanations for the motif of the unnecessary and despicable massacre at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, there is one thing that stands out for me: The individuals who executed the attack acted like human drones brainwashed and manipulated by the group (aka gang) they belonged to. Such groups compete for money and members and must prove their reasons to exist, and that is the main reason they plan and commit terrorist plots that get a lot of attention.
It is important not to generalize. Extreme Islamist terrorist groups do not represent Islam or the vast majority of the roughly 1 billion Muslims around the world anymore than the Ku Klux Klan represents Christians or Neo Nazis represent Germans; nor do violent drug cartels represent the people of the countries where they operate.
It’s unfortunate that small groups of people feel the need to try to oppress, threat or use force to undermine values of others, but it is a fact that has always been a part of the bloody history of mankind.
There is no doubt that democracy and free speech are under attack around the world. For example, China is ruthlessly using its power to oppress the right to demonstrate, the practice of free press and the push for a more democratic election process in Hong Kong.
But sometimes democracy also scores a win, as the recent elections in Sri Lanka have proven. A new leader who promised a more open government scored a surprise win against his more oppressive incumbent.
Throughout South East Asia, democracy is in the upswing without the active propagation of the West, which I much prefer than trying to force democracy on states, like we unsuccessfully attempted in Iraq.
The hacking of Sony’s corporate websites before the release of Seth Rogen’s “The Interview,” supposedly by the Korean government, is another example of trying to torpedo the distribution of what the totalitarian regime in Korea would classify as “dissenting propaganda” that we simply view as satire.
(And yes, see the movie if you like that type of action/comedies.)
Satire has long played an important role in shining a critical light on some of the absurdities of current affairs — from the clever court jester in medieval times to today’s filmmakers, actors (think of Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worry and Love the Bomb”), writers, cartoonists and stand-up comedians like Robin Williams, who once said, “People say satire is dead. It's not dead; it's alive and living in the White House."
Satire can expose the nearsighted decision-making of some of those in power, or it can reveal popular but unspoken attitudes.
We can’t let bullies try to exert direct or indirect censorship on our freedom of speech, neither through acts of barbarism nor through cyber warfare.
Freedom of expression without repercussions should be a basic human right for all. The principle is worth defending and actively promoting around the globe.