More state power, not free speech, the likeliest we-are-Charlie result

Despite the intentions of tens of thousands of marchers, the ultimate answer to the Charlie Hebdo massacre will not be freer speech. It will be a mostly secret intensification of police power, with attendant shrinkage of individual freedoms, Neil Macdonald writes.

A renewed war on terror seems to be what's on most Western governments' minds

Hundreds of thousands of French citizens took part in a solidarity march in the streets of Paris on Sunday, in the wake of the massacre at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)

Well, everyone must at least feel better now, having chanted and declared for days that we're all Charlie.

It was, or it seemed, a cry for freedom of speech, ringing outward from one of the world's first secular democracies.

In reality, though, with all due respect to the sentiment behind it, Sunday's great march through the centre of Paris, and others like it around the world, must qualify as one of the greatest collective acts of slacktivism so far this century.

And the consequences of all this outrage may be far from what the protesters intended.

Think about it: just whom were these marchers addressing? The executioners who showed up at Charlie Hebdo last week?

If those characters were still alive, they would probably answer no, you're not Charlie, because we killed Charlie.

Perhaps the slogan was directed at the bearded ISIS fighters who've been slaughtering and raping and oppressing their way through modern-day Mesopotamia and the Levant.

If so, the message was probably received with some bemusement. Perhaps even a bit of triumphalism. Score another one for their version of Islam.

Or were the I-Am-Charlie crowds addressing their own governments?

The leaders of several governments were in fact marching right up front with them in Paris over the weekend, which was a wonderful photo op, but really a bit rich given some of the alliances and the practices that some of those nations are involved in.

Certain close strategic partners of the U.S. and Canada are actively and violently anti-free-speech.

Egypt, a big recipient of U.S. aid, imprisons and tortures people just for belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was democratically elected to govern and then overthrown.

There were some odd bedfellows in the gathering of world leaders who participated in Sunday's march in Paris. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

On Friday, two days after the Charlie Hebdo killings, Saudi Arabia administered the first 50 of a thousand lashes to Raif Badawi, a blogger convicted of insulting Islam.

He is also serving a 10-year prison sentence. Which means, effectively, that the Saudis intend to lash Badawi grievously, perhaps even to death, for speech far less corrosive than Charlie Hebdo's deliberately insulting cartoons.

How does that make Saudi Arabia substantively different from the Charlie Hebdo attackers? Is it merely a matter of scale and method?

Life of Brian

Where Saudi is concerned, though, the West has chosen its criticism carefully. The State Department (not the president) called the Badawi sentence "inhumane."

Canada's "ambassador for religious freedom" (not the prime minister) echoed that, calling it "unbecoming of a society that seeks to advance itself within the family of nations."

The Saudis, unsurprisingly, seem undeterred.

The fact is, even Western governments are never terribly enthusiastic about free speech, or at least speech they find inconvenient.

Two years ago, President Barack Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, criticized Charlie Hebdo for publishing the cartoons that eventually drew the killers to its offices.

"We know that these images will be deeply offensive to many and have the potential to be inflammatory," Carney declared in late 2012.

Note this is the same administration that publicly castigated Sony Pictures for caving to pressure recently and NOT releasing a film that was deeply offensive to North Korea.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in his official statement of outrage at the Charlie Hebdo attack, made no reference to free speech at all, which shouldn't surprise anyone. Canada, unlike the U.S., offers no guarantee of absolute free speech in its constitution.

And Canadians are certainly not Charlie. My guess is that an English-language version of Charlie Hebdo wouldn't last even a few days in Canada before concerned Muslim or Christian or Jewish citizens would be demanding charges be laid under Canada's hate-speech laws, or dragging the magazine before one of our provincial human rights commissions that specialize in rooting out offensive expression.

Canada even has an anti-blasphemy law on the books. It was last used in an attempted private prosecution against the distributors of the Monty Python movie Life of Brian in 1980.

War on terror redux

Western governments are, however, quite interested in enforcement and security, and that, not more speech, is the order of the day once again.

With unintended irony, and a very short memory, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared over the weekend that France is now locked in a "war on terror."

French soldiers patrol near a department store in Paris as part of the highest security clampdown in decades. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

That's exactly the term George W. Bush used after 9/11. It presaged an unprecedented expansion of the surveillance state and the powers of America's security apparatus.

Civil liberties were tossed aside. Other countries' laws, even those of U.S. allies, became irrelevant.

And the frightened American population cheered.

The French, among others, mocked the slogan relentlessly, especially once it became apparent that the U.S. invasion of Iraq, carried out as part of this war on terror, was based on a false pretext.

Eventually, Bush's own Pentagon quietly dropped the slogan. And when the Democrats took the White House, they repudiated it.

But it's clearly back on. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder agreed with the French prime minister. America, he said, is at war, too.

Next month, Washington is convening an international summit to discuss new measures.

Canada is preparing new legislation to expand the powers of its security agencies.

The French, and the Americans, and no doubt the Canadians, are considering how better to monitor and obliterate incitement on the internet.

Or, more precisely, what security officials consider incitement. It's a term that can be interpreted rather broadly, and no doubt will be.

Clearly, the ultimate answer to the Charlie Hebdo massacre will not be freer speech. It will be a mostly secret intensification of police power, with attendant shrinkage of individual freedoms.

And we will all be told not to worry: If you aren't doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.

At least one French demonstrator seemed to recognize some of this over the weekend. The sign he hoisted read: "Je marche, mais je suis conscient de la confusion et de l'hypocrisie de la situation."

I march, but I am aware of the confusion and hypocrisy of the situation.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.