Terrorists Will Never Limit Our Free Speech, But Government Can


Photo by: Boris Roessler/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

The front pages of international newspapers show the January 11, 2015, memorial march for the victims of the Paris terror attacks. Millions of people demonstrated on January 11 in a march through the French capital for the preservation of democratic values.

Terrorists can't limit our speech. They can murder and maim, and cause widespread panic, but they don't have the capacity to threaten to our democratic values. They never have, and they never will.

The real threat is that we might voluntarily surrender some of our rights in order to defend ourselves against terrorism. In that sense, suggesting that a handful of bloodthirsty wackos have the capacity to prevent us from drawing offensive cartoons or mocking a religion gives them far more power than they actually posses.

It's true that armed extremists can shape the way society operates in fragile or failed states, where they can sometimes wield something approaching real institutional power. That's evident in countries from Nigeria to Afghanistan. But terrorism has never had an enduring impact on our way of life in the developed world; extremists have never influenced how countries with functional courts and adequate security infrastructure go about their business.

The gruesome murder of anti-Islam film maker Theo Van Gogh by a zealot in Amsterdam didn't dissuade others from producing cheap agitprop attacking Muslims. Baruch Goldstein's bloody massacre of Muslims at prayer in the West Bank didn't result in changes to Israel policies toward its Arab minority, nor did Timothy McVeigh's attack in Oklahoma City lead to less aggressive enforcement of federal laws. A wave of ultra-left-wing terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s didn't cause Europe to rethink its devotion to capitalism, and Eric Rudolph's Christianist terror campaign did nothing to protect "the integrity of American society" from “the homosexual agenda.”

The perpetrators of these attacks, like those who were responsible for the vicious murders in Paris last week, ended up dead or in prison. In the aftermath, we mourned those who died at the terrorists' hands. We feared the possibility of more bloodshed for a while, and then we moved on.

Charlie Hebdo's current cover features a caricature of Muhammed. It's an act of defiance, but one that carries minimal risk; there's no doubt that the editors who chose the cover will have plenty of security for the foreseeable future.

And while prominent media institutions like The New York Times and the Associated Press have to make a cost-benefit analysis when deciding whether to run the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, those posting them to their Facebook pages know that they're not really taking a risk. It may make them feel defiant, but deep down they know that they can insult anyone they want without consequence. It's not an act of courage because our freedom of expression remains unchallenged, and we trust that our security agencies are on the case.

“Lone wolf” nutjobs and small bands of extremists can't threaten our values, but our own institutions can. They wield real power. History is riddled with examples, but you don't need to look further than the policies of torture, detention without trial and domestic surveillance adopted by the U.S. government following the 9/11 attacks.

They were only viable because the American public embraced the idea that terrorism represented an existential threat. Then, as now, we accepted the idea that terrorists had the capacity to undermine our rights. That day, George W. Bush told the American public that “our way of life, our very freedom came under attack.” In reality, as traumatic as that day's events were, it was airplanes, buildings and the people inside them that were attacked—our “freedom” was never in peril.

It's important that we identify where the real threat lies because terrorism is still a tactic. Unlike a group or a specific ideology, a tactic can't be eradicated. We can fight terrorist organizations—killing their leaders, going after their sources of funding—but small groups of extremists and “lone wolf” attackers are ultimately just murderous criminals, with the same degree of institutional power as any other murderers.

They pose a huge challenge for law enforcement; Attorney General Eric Holder says the prospect of such attacks keeps him awake at night. But we accept a certain amount of violent crime as the price of living in a free and open society. The only alternative is to accept life under a police state.

That's not to say that we can't do anything to manage the risk posed by these kinds of attacks. But the one thing we shouldn't do is attribute power to extremists that they don't have, because that only leads to genuine threats to our liberty and values.