Free speech wouldn't be very useful if it meant saying things that everyone already agreed with. Nor would it be much use if it were limited by the need to avoid giving offence. Free speech is the fundamental democratic freedom because a society where speech and thought are free is a society with a shot at governing itself by reason rather than faith, settling disagreements through argument rather than violence. It is a society where minds can be changed voluntarily and attitudes can evolve. A society without free speech, in contrast, is one where your mind has already been made up for you.
Wednesday's attack on the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in Paris, was a direct assault on democracy, and the idea of free speech at its heart. The men who carried it out intended it to be understood as such. Their target was a publication that has, over the years, offended many. That, after all, is its raison d'être.
Its stock in trade is political satire. It satirizes politicians, public figures and government leaders, holding alleged missteps and misdeeds up to ridicule. It also frequently makes jokes at the expense of each of the world's great religions. As any viewer of The Daily Show or the Colbert Report can attest, satire can be one of the most persuasive forms of speech. After all, well-aimed mockery can eviscerate a hollow idea. When you laugh at a joke, you may be acknowledging not just its humour, but its truth.
Modern Western society, a product of the Enlightenment, is built on the idea that while we may each choose our private version of the sacred, in the public sphere, all things are up for discussion and debate. The men who armed themselves with Kalashnikovs rather than arguments, and attacked Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists, writers and editors believe in a rather different model of society: one whose rules cannot be challenged by human reason. They have in mind a world where a long list of fundamental beliefs simply cannot be discussed, on pain of death.
In response, people across the globe are invoking the phrase, "Je Suis Charlie" – I Am Charlie. And in a sense, all of us are. Every society needs people like the satirists of Charlie Hebdo.
No, not many people would want to spend their days endlessly mocking political and religious figures, parsing their statements for hypocrisy, offending the powerful and the power-hungry, and sometimes simply being offensive. Few of us would want to live in a world in which everyone tried to be Charlie all of the time. But our civilization and all of its freedoms are impossible unless some people sometimes choose to play the role of Charlie, and unless they have the freedom to choose when, how and why they will do so. It may be in print, on social media, in their place of worship or even just among their friends, but without the possibility of challenging the status quo, democracy isn't possible.
The men who carried out Wednesday's attack, it is worth remembering, are not representative of the majority of the Muslim community. They are outliers, though they hope through the persuasive power of terrorism to become mainstream. On video, they can be heard shouting "Allahu Akbar," but they are misusing the phrase. It is hard to accept that anyone who declares that God is great could count human life, life made in His image, so cheap.
The writer Salman Rushdie, who spent years in hiding as a result of a fatwa and a price put on his head by similar radicals, yesterday said: "I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. 'Respect for religion' has become a code phrase meaning 'fear of religion.' Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect."
To some, it may seem as if Mr. Rushdie is going too far. Democracy does not demand a disrespect of religion; in fact the idea of civil liberties means that people's private religious choices must be respected and permitted. But the public sphere is another story. A modern, rational, democratic society is impossible unless criticism of all sorts of ideas, including religious ideas, is permitted. There is nothing more fundamental.
The most recent issue of Charlie Hebdo featured novelist Michel Houellebecq on the cover. His latest novel, Submission, is a kind of dystopian satire about a future France that has become a religious theocracy. In an interview published this week, Mr. Houellebecq said that ideas "which reached their height in the Enlightenment, and led to the French Revolution, are dying. All of this will be nothing but a footnote in human history." He described modern, secular society as "dead."
His fears mirror the hopes of those who attacked Paris, France, democracy and modernity on Wednesday. And they are both mistaken. The human desire for freedom is stronger than that.