One man’s meat another man’s poison
The terrorist attack on the offices of CharlieHebdo deserve universal condemnation. But the tragedy has also brought into focus the debate between our cherished Western value of freedom of expression and the fuzzy border where free speech ends.
In such matters the United States’ view is much more liberal than in France or in the European Union as a whole. The very first change to the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, adopted in December 1791, not coincidentally around the same time as the French Revolution and its aftermath, prohibits any law limiting freedom of speech. Of course, there are some limitations for matters such as national security, child pornography and inciting violence.
The latest relevant ruling by the US Supreme Court, in a 1969 (Brandenburg vs Ohio) case involving the white supremacist organization Ku Klux Klan, held that the government is prohibited from punishing inflammatory speech unless it is aimed at inciting, and is likely to incite, imminent lawless action. Under this ruling for example, Nazis in the US have been able to operate freely organizing marches and public demonstrations.
By contrast, in post-World War II Europe, in reaction to the horrors of Nazism and spurred on by xenophobic antiSemitic propaganda, many countries adopted hate speech laws designed to prohibit inciting religious and racial hatred. It’s ironic that France was several generations ahead of the curve in that its Press Law of 1881 criminalizes incitement to racial discrimination, hatred or violence on the basis of membership of an ethnic, racial or religious group.
The legal bar in France is set high, however. CharlieHebdo has been unsuccessfully sued several times in lawsuits claiming that it was variously anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim. Its cartoons, as we’ve seen these last few days have lampooned mainstream religions of all stripes but theMuslims perhaps more so and more viciously.
This debate would be incomplete if we did not consider the views ofMuslims, a few of whom have resorted to the extreme violence that we have seen in Paris this week or perpetrated by Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria in recent months. A London-based radicalMuslim preacher, Anjem Choudary, said onWednesday that he blamed freedom, and freedom of expression for the Charlie Hebdo attack.
Freedom of speech can involve opinions to which others vehemently disagree. It can be hurtful, insulting, offensive, anger-inducing and demeaning. But in theWest we fervently believe in the clash of opinions, viewpoints and arguments in the marketplace of ideas.
But freedom of speech in the US and the EU is not absolute. Pens, pencils and word processors are versatile instruments. There are many other ways to make a point — and to make it even more sharply. A picture or a cartoon may be worth a thousand words. In the right hands those words can move people much more profoundly. But in the wrong hands, and for the wrong pairs of eyes, well, they can mean a totally different thing. The author is a senior adviser to Tsinghua University and former director and vice-president of ABC Television in New York.
On June 4, 2004, Gerhard Schröder became the first German chancellor to stand alongside the leaders ofGermany‘s wartime enemies in France, marking the 60th anniversary of theNormandy landings, which were a prelude to the end for the Third Reich.
“Hugely symbolic,” Schroder, who accepted the invitation from thenFrench President Jacques Chirac, said of his attendance in France. “It meansWorldWar II is finally over.”
Such a hugely symbolic moment has yet to occur in Asia.
War anniversaries are still a sore point in East Asia. Media in Japan are foreseeing this year as a difficult one for the country, as it marks the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII on Aug 15, when Japan surrendered unconditionally to the Allied Powers in 1945. Unlike Europe, Asia’s former enemies have never come together to commemorate the end of the war.
This year is also the 50th anniversary of normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea. Although both entered office more than two years ago, Japanese PrimeMinister Shinzo Abe has not been able to have a formal summit meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, because of the Abe administration’s claims that the Imperial Japanese Army was not involved in coercing women into sexual slavery.
In his Jan 1 remarks, Japan’s Emperor Akihito asked the nation to learn from the WWII as it considers its future. He recommended starting with theManchurian Incident of 1931.
Thiswaswhenthe Japanese troops stationed inNortheastChina – known asManchuria back then – detonated a bombonthe rails of the SouthManchuria Railwayandused it asan excuse to attackChinese troopson Sept 18, 1931, heralding the beginning of Japan’s invasion ofChina.
Will the 81-year-oldEmperor’s call for reflectiononthewarhave the ear of his “subjects”?
The answer will be revealed in a statementAbewill issueonAug15. He said it will include remorse for the past warandJapan’s postwarandfuture development.
Japan is not comfortable every time it is compared to Germany in terms of atonement for its deeds and reconciliation with the victims.
Both waged war, but Germany has apologized sincerely and atoned, Japan has not.
When Schröder came to power one of his central pledges to Germans was to drawa line under their country’s nightmare history, to finally make Germany a “normal” country. Schroder describedD-Day as “a day of gratitude for the freedom which was won starting there”. For Germany, Schröder’s presence in France on June 4, 2004 signaled international rehabilitation.
Abe is the first Japanese prime minister born after the war who has a political agenda to build a “proud and strong Japan”. He is committed to breaking away from the postwar regime theUS occupation imposed on Japan. And on wartime history, Abe has allied himself with Japan’s right-wing politicians, news media and scholars. He doubts the validity of the postwar Tokyo Trials, in which Japan’s wartime leaders were condemned.
But the sackings ofNanjingand Manila; the slavesworked to deathon theThai-Burma railroad; the brutal prisoner ofwarcampsfrom Singapore to Sumatra; the millions of dead in China. Thesehave left permanent scarsonthe history ofAsia.
Europe took60years to deal with its WWIIlegacyandforge newbonds, Asia still does notknowhowlong this will take.
This is up to Japan.