After Copenhagen: The myth of civilized censorship

The smoke from the gunfire had barely disappeared before cagey columnists were saying that if we don’t want to get killed then we should stop offending people. A writer for the Guardian said Copenhagen should remind us of the “obligations…upon those who wish to live in peaceful, reasonably harmonious societies”—primarily the obligation to “guard against the understandable temptation to be provocative,” especially by publishing Muhammad-mocking cartoons. Shorter version: to avoid being shot, zip your lip. The Guardian writer is effectively doing the shooter’s dirty work for him, spelling out in words what the shooter said with bullets: if you offend, you might die, so don’t do it.

Another Guardian columnist said the peoples of Scandinavia should now “step back from their principles”—their “strong belief in the moral imperative of free speech”—and “show more of the pragmatism for which Denmark is also famous.” In short, Denmark and its neighbour nations should do what the shooter wanted them to: ditch that pesky principle of free speech, that old right to provoke, and instead erm and ahh before saying or showing anything edgy.

These responses to Copenhagen, this effective aiding and abetting of the shooters’ profoundly illiberal message by the supposedly liberal commentariat, echo some of the grislier responses to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. There was the infamous Financial Times column that slammed the “editorial foolishness” of Charlie Hebdo (apparently the cartoonists brought their murders on themselves), and the New Statesman screed against “free-speech fundamentalists” who stupidly say “Je Suis Charlie” when the fact is we all know there are free-speech lines that “cannot be crossed.” It sounded almost like a threat, an echo of the sentiments of the Charlie Hebdo killers themselves: “Cross the line and you’ll regret it…”