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Our most powerful weapon
I woke up on a Wednesday morning to a notification on my iPhone from the Wall Street Journal that read, “Armed men attack offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing at least 10, people say.” My tired eyes widened and I sat up in my bed as my thumbs scrolled through the horrifying story of how an armed group opened fire in the office of a satirical newspaper notorious for publishing controversial illustrations of the prophet Muhammad.
A sudden fear struck through me as I recalled the (well-deserved) backlash I received upon writing my first Op-Ed several months ago and as I read about the violent response that stirred from several seemingly harmless satirical cartoons. While the editorial I wrote brought out anger and frustration as a result of my ignorance and misinformation, the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo brought out a response that resulted in human deaths. To think that drawings paired with words led to the mayhem that took place on Jan. 7, 2015.
I had a professor my freshman year who taught us that terrorist will oftentimes attack popular, highly visited places in order to forever form an association between the location and other similar locations with the attack. A perfect example of the terrorist technique was the Westgate Shopping Mall attack in Kenya.
The attack on the satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, was not so much an attack on newspaper publishing buildings as it was an attack on what Charlie Hebdo represented, and that was freedom of speech. Charlie Hebdo represented unfiltered, honest, controversial, freedom of speech. And the group that attacked their office on that Wednesday did not set out to associate fear with newspaper publishing buildings; they were attacking one of the world’s—particularly one of the West’s—most popular commonplaces: freedom of speech.
What we can’t let happen now is let this attack be the downfall of our right to exercise freedom of speech. What we need to do now is allow this event to empower us. In attacking the one right every person can, and should, have—the right to speak, write, and openly express thoughts, ideas, and opinion, we are shown just how powerful each one of us can be. We are shown just how powerful our words can be. If a couple of cleverly done cartoons with short pieces of dialogue are able provoke such powerful actions, then the same can be done in a positive manner. Well thought-out and intelligently expressed speech should be thought of as heavily armed with influence—influence that, instead of provokes a few individuals to kill, can comparably provoke a few individuals to act in a noble and righteous manner. Why can’t it?
Speech can be used as a weapon. It can be pointed in many different directions, and the most alluring part is that anyone can pull the trigger. Furthermore, speech can be empowering; speech can be liberating; speech can be encouraging; speech can be nurturing; speech can be catalytic; speech can be a tool. Exercising our freedom of speech is the one thing we all will always have and no one can take from us.
Stephane Charbonnier, one of the artists killed on the Jan. 7th shooting, said in an interview with ABC News in 2012, “Without freedom of speech we are dead.” I would go as far as extending Charbonnier’s quote to say that if you are not taking advantage of your freedom of speech than you are not living. And to properly exercise your freedom of speech than you must be able to develop well-informed, supported and highly educated opinions. Freedom of speech can be a powerful weapon, but if put in the hands of someone who is blind and arrogant, then it can cause it lot more harm than it can good. You shouldn’t withhold your speech if it is true and genuine but risks offending others because voices are meant to be heard. If they weren’t, then we’d find ourselves a part of an anti-utopian world like the one in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which every single existing book is burned because their ideas inescapably carry some capacity to offend an individual. The only time you should withhold your speech is if you are unable to speak judiciously, and then in that case, just keep your mouth shut.