Wednesday, January 7, 2015

On Toothless Hashtags

Today's terrorist attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo is an attack on the media at large and the principles of free expression.  Many have taken to social media, blogs, online publications, television, and other platforms to criticize this attack.

This criticism is no substitute for other kinds of actions that may need to be taken in order to bring the killers to justice and prevent future attacks of this kind.  Nor does tweeting a popular hashtag require the same amount of courage as does writing for a magazine that has been targeted by terrorist groups.  However, popular criticism of this atrocity does play a valuable role.  Terrorism in part operates by breaking the back of public opinion, cowing people into voluntarily giving into the arbitrary demands of a given set of terrorists.  By filling the air with fear, terrorism tries to undermine the public faith, tolerance, and conventional liberties of civil society.  Condemning this terror and expressing support for the principles of civil society are part of the defense of civil society.  And calling out those who would excuse this atrocity also contributes to defending the principles of civil society.

Blog posts alone will not defeat the forces of terror, but rhetorical resistance is important.  The terrorists attacked Charlie Hebdo because they recognized the power of media and rhetoric.  In addition to taking concrete actions, we can mourn the lost, defend the principle of free expression for which they fought, castigate those who would blame the victims of terror for daring to express themselves, and celebrate the virtues of a free society.

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