Sometimes, Free Speech Is Bloody

Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.” – Salman Rushdie

There’s a man named Jonathan, and he’s a Jew; he lives in Germany at the peak of Adolf Hitler’s reign. As he sees his friends and family rounded up like cattle, he knows he’s next in line. The thought of internment stirs in him a sense of intense dread, and despair, but also sparks of anger.

Jonathan is taken to a concentration camp where he is starved and abused.

The longer Jonathan remains in the camp, the more his fright evaporates, and the more his anger becomes electrified. He is sickened by what his nation has become; he is disturbed that his homeland was allowed to rot, and that no one stopped it.

His anger has nearly reached its boiling point when the Fuhrer himself makes a visit to the camp. The guards have the gaunt and filthy men line up for him. As Hitler walks down the line, his eyes make contact with Jonathan’s. Hitler is intrigued by Jonathan’s bravery and steps toward him.

Jonathan knows well that what he’s about to do will get him killed, but he doesn’t care. He looks directly into the eyes of Adolf Hitler, and spits in his face.

Jonathan is then executed without a second thought.

Who held the power in that situation? Jonathan did.

Jonathan exercised his human right of free speech. Free speech is not bound by words; it exists outside of man’s control because it is the singular bedrock of our humanity. Without this right, we lose our ability to challenge tyranny, and if we lose the means to challenge tyranny, we are no longer human, but animals, fearfully directed by whomever holds the reins of society.

Today, we face a similar evil to Nazism. It doesn’t come with the pageantry or outrightness of Hitler’s Germany, it comes in the form of disparate sects of religious fanatics thousands of miles away. It’s a much more distant threat, and as such, it gets compartmentalized in our collective consciousness. We tell ourselves that it’s not a big deal; it’s so far away.

But different does not mean less dangerous; different does not mean less capable; different does not mean more easily controlled. Radical Islam is a severe threat to our way of life, and the recent shooting in Texas, as well as the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France, show us that this threat has left the far-away places, and come to our doorstep.

Political commentator Will Cain appeared on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” and said something that struck me. I replayed the clip over and over again.

Cain said: “You don’t just have a right to free speech. When someone’s position is ‘If you offend me, I will kill you,’ it becomes virtuous for you to offend that person…”

Virtue comes in different forms, and it’s not always kind. Sometimes, it requires purposefully spitting in the face of evil. Allowing radical Islamists to frighten us into submission for daring to offend them is not virtuous, it’s cowardly. By staying silent per their commands, we are allowing their brutality to go unchallenged. If we’re unwilling to defy this heinous ideology in our own country, in even the most mild of ways—such as drawing a cartoon—they’ve already won.

Jonathan showed strength despite being in a position of weakness. Though he was executed, he won the battle because he confronted evil. He was not silent.

We cannot be silent. We cannot be intimidated. It is our duty to challenge the sickness in our time, and if we refuse to do so out of fear, we allow our most basic right–the bedrock of our humanity–to be stolen from us.

Sometimes, we need to be provocative.

As George Washington said: “If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”