Terrible things happen every day, among the most terrible the things that human beings do to each other. In Nigeria, Boko Haram separatists have just assaulted a village and left hundreds, perhaps thousands dead. In Florida a man has just thrown his five-year-old daughter off a 65-foot-high bridge, an act so unbelievable and sickening that I have to stop and breathe deeply several times before I can finish this sentence. These and other horrors deserve as much attention, reproach, and effort to redress them as decent human beings can muster. But the murderous attack that took place last week at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo is a special case of terror that requires, in addition to the responses above, that some things be said. Which is why I’m at the keyboard in the dark hours of the early morning to say them.
Except many have already said them more vehemently, more eloquently, and more convincingly than I expect to be able to. They’ve talked about the killings in Paris being abhorrent and utterly unjustified. About violence never being an appropriate reaction to the expression of an idea. About principles that can be threatened by words or pictures not being worth the holding. Nevertheless, I feel I have to say them again anyway. Why?
For one reason, because Thomas Nashe, the Elizabethan author who provided a name for this column, saw his writing forcibly suppressed. He was imprisoned briefly for his satire in 1593, and in 1597 co-produced a play called “The Isle of Dogs” that the authorities called “lewd” and “seditious.” His fellow playwright Ben Jonson was jailed, a fate Nashe escaped only by fleeing London. I owe him one.
More to the point, because I’m a bookseller. By vocation, I promulgate the free exchange of ideas, and I’m a colleague of everyone who does the same. An attack on one of us is an attack on us all. So even though Charlie Hebdo, which was often crude and mean-spirited in its commentary, isn’t easy to like, it’s easy to defend. And so defend it I will, in the only way I can from 5000 miles away, by speaking up. So I’ll say, along with millions worldwide, je suis Charlie.
A very small thing to do, to be sure, but an important one. It’s an exercise of the First Amendment, a principle that’s as much a cornerstone of our society as democracy itself, in my opinion. I don’t generally subscribe to the notion that history is progressive, or that different societies can be ranked by superiority, but I do see the development of free speech as the most significant cultural improvement imaginable. Allowing people to think and speak as they like without censorship or fear of reprisal is an unmitigated good, and denying them that right is an unadulterated evil.
Independent bookstores are particularly well-poised and eager to fight this evil. When Salman Rushdie was subjected to a fatwā in 1989 for his Satanic Verses, we refused to buckle and continued to sell his novel, something that the corporate chains felt they couldn’t do. When a deadly car bomb exploded in 2007 and destroyed al-Mutanabbi Street, the center of intellectual life in Baghdad, the international literary community, led by an independent bookshop, rallied in support and brought the street back to life. And the next time freedom of expression is under the gun, we’ll step forward again to protect it. There’s not much in life I’ll say I’m proud of, but I’m proud of that.
James Crossley is a bookseller and blogger at Island Books on Mercer Island. His advice to anyone whose sensibilities are offended by a cartoon: Write a letter to the editor, organize a march, or for God’s sake, draw a better cartoon.