News photo: Protesters chant, "Death to blasphemers."
Look at media coverage of the Charlie Hebdo aftermath, and you'll see dangerous myths are emerging.
1. Myth: We should equate public debates with private quarrels.
Too often, commentators mix up private quarrels with jihad.
For instance, the pope, bless him, noted that if you insulted his mother, you could expect him (a former bouncer!) to punch you in the nose.
But could you expect him to machine-gun your whole family?
The problem is not hurt feelings; it is mass murder and terrorism. The people offended by the magazine did not write vituperative letters to the editor; they burst in with Kalashnikovs and gunned down the staff.
It is dangerous and misleading to talk of "sensibilities" and "insulted feelings" when the real topic is murder and terrorism.
2. Myth: Public issues be discussed with cool restraint.
What if your mother is running for president? You and she should darned well be able to hear intense and even unfair criticism without reaching for your automatic rifle.
Public debate in a democracy should be, must be, intense, emotional and even exaggerated. If it is real debate, it will tap into real emotion. That means at times it will be over the top, overexcited and exaggerated. That is an inevitable byproduct of real emotion and the real exchange of views on vital topics.
Also, hyperbole (to give it its fancy name) is an essential tool for public communication. It is not always possible to communicate with witty understatement and cool irony. To get a point across, public debaters must sometimes draw broad pictures and use vivid language. Too often, complaints about "hurtful language" are meant, or act, as censors of effective communication.
3. Myth: We must give in to claims about "insults" and "besmirching honor" and "blasphemy."
Such claims, however, are too easily faked, and too easily become tools of oppression.
No "insult to honor" can be disproved. Both "insult" and "honor" are vague, subjective qualities. No one can disprove, as a matter of fact or logic, that honor has been insulted.
More important, "honor" and "blasphemy" easily become tools for oppression of minorities. Take this case: A Christian Pakistani woman gets into a quarrel with Muslim women. They accuse her of blasphemy. She is ultimately condemned to death by hanging, and an official who expressed sympathy for her was assassinated by his own bodyguard.
The key point here: There is no way the Christian woman (or anyone) can disprove she had said something. In such a world of blasphemy laws, and vigilante mobs, every person is at risk of being accused of a capital crime and is helpless to refute it. That includes Muslims, BTW.
The point is doubly important when lynch mobs act upon accusations. (See the link above.) In such a country, no person is safe from either legal persecution or lynching at any time. To underline: there is absolutely no defense against an accusation of blasphemy or besmirching the honor of a deity or some who according to Muslims lived 13 centuries ago.
Thus our civilization must reject such claims at all levels.
4. Myth: religion is private, so we as a public need not be involved in it.
Some of the explicit or subtle rationalization for these murders is based on the notion that religion is merely private. Some have clucked their tongues over the slayings, but said, either in their tone or in so many words, that the cartoonists should have known what their cartoons would draw a deadly reaction to such comments, as they touch on tender private feelings that should be shielded from public injury.
I for one would be glad to see more acceptance of the notion that the sacred must be accorded special dignity, reverence and even awe. But as long as the government that taxes me uses my money for "Piss Christ," forgive me if I accept the reality that religion is part of the public sphere in 2015.
And it should be. Religions make claims about the cosmos and our behaviors in it. Christianity makes claims about human life; those claims impinge on public topics; Christianity is a valid subject for public debate, which may unruly and rambunctious. And of course Christianity has a right to respond to that debate.
Just not with AK-47s.
But many of the jihadis' apologists implicitly think that religion should be utterly private, and silent. People may have doubts or beliefs, but they must hold them silently, shut up in their hearts. In this view, if they proclaim their beliefs on a magazine cover, they should expect backlash for violating the new social norm that religion is taboo.
Religion is in fact a subject of public debate in a free society. To paraphrase Lincoln, the proper recourse is not to bullets but to bullet points in a reasoned reply.
5. It is dangerous to think jihadis hate only a satirical magazine.
They don't hate speech; they hate all that is human. They hate music and art. They hate our appreciation of human beauty. They hate love. They hate desire. The idea that two people could adore each other nauseates them. They are stirred to deadly rage by the ordinary human impulses of forming a family and enjoying the simple pleasures of life.
"Charlie Hebdo" is only the first thing they wanted to attack. They also want to attack all art, as they have proved by their destruction of art and bans of music. They want to attack all those who truly feel desire, all those who want to enjoy life. They want to attack all who have ambitions and dreams and wishes for better lives.
They hate all that is divine. They hate the yearnings of the human heart for the ineffable, they hate the impulse to follow the promptings of the spirit, to obey the unpredictable yet powerful urges of the soul.
One reason our constitution protects religion is not because it is a trivial private matter that is of no public import; we protect religion because it reflects our most profound and powerful feelings, and because it is too majestic to be encompassed by our laws and understanding. We cannot fully understand it, therefore we dare not constrain it or proscribe it.
Jihadis -- like their psychic predecessors who sacrificed infants on blood-spattered altars or galloped in barbarian hordes or rode among the Panzer divisions -- hate all they do not control, and that includes the spiritual.
I'd even suggest jihadis hate their own prophet: they want to extirpate all images of him, because, subconsciously, they hate all that is outside their own nihilistic hearts. They secretly hate God because they are in fact enthralled by the Devil.
These five dangerous myths have if anything grown in response to the Paris massacre. We must keep this in mind if we are to defend all that is human -- and divine.