'Je suis Charlie,' at least for now

Story highlights

  • World leaders join millions of people in a march to defend free speech in the wake of a terror attack
  • But John Sutter asks how long such enthusiasm will last
Editor's note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and creator of CNN's Change the List project. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Email him at ctl@cnn.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Right now, it's the easiest stance in the world to take.

Uphold the right to universal free speech.
Je suis Charlie.
    On Sunday, a perplexingly awesome mash-up of world leaders -- from French President Francois Hollande to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- rallied in Paris to support the right to free expression.
    It was an "extraordinary sight," remarked CNN's Christiane Amanpour. And it was. World leaders who often are at odds, and likely will be bickering by week's end, marched arm-in-arm with the public in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that was the site of an unconscionable terror attack last week. The magazine, of course, was known for publishing potentially offensive caricatures of religious figures, including the Prophet Mohammed. The attackers are believed to have been motivated by radical Islam.
    For now, the world is taking a stand for free speech.
    Proclaiming the pen mightier than the sword.
    Humor stronger than fear.
    It's a wonderful moment, truly.
    Such harmony in the face of tragedy.
    But I worry this sentiment may have a short half-life.
    What about next week, month or year.
    Or when the type of speech that needs protecting is more offensive.
    What if the anti-speech violence continues?
    What if we become too quick to censor ourselves -- too ready to criticize without seeking true understanding, or too slow to embrace and uphold the power of our differences?
    The magazine Charlie Hebdo plans to print 1 million copies of its next issue on Wednesday. It will do so with the help of French publications and a Google fund.
    But will the magazine survive the news cycle?
    What about its brand of no-apology satire?
    Will we still be Charlie, then?
    I have more questions than answers, but I do fear a post-Charlie chill.
    For a sense to what's next, perhaps it's useful to look at recent history.
    In 2011, after the offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed, Time magazine's Bruce Crumley wrote that the "Islamophobic antics" of Charlie Hebdo "openly beg for the very violent responses from extremists their authors claim to proudly defy in the name of common good."
    The message: It's their fault.
    They drew the cartoons.
    Blame the victim.
    Traces of that sentiment are re-emerging.
    "It's possible to honor and protect the free speech rights of publications like Charlie Hebdo while simultaneously believing such cartoons are unnecessarily disrespectful and offensive," liberal commentator Sally Kohn, who I tend to agree with, wrote for this website.
    It's possible to believe that, sure.
    But it is misguided, right now, to critique the content of the paper's cartoons.
    The more central point is that it had the right to publish them without fear of violence.
    Kohn concludes: "In the aftermath of the heinous attacks in Paris, it's important we remember that free speech and respect can go hand-in-hand."
    They can, but they certainly don't have to.
    "What is freedom of expression?" asked the author Salman Rushdie.
    "Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist."
    In the wake of the Paris terror attack, we need to recommit ourselves -- beyond the hashtags, the columns and even the hand-holding demonstrations -- to the idea that everyone in a free society, in a free world, has a right to free speech, even if that speech is damn offensive.
    That doesn't mean we have to say and publish everything.
    Often, we shouldn't.
    But it does mean we should refute bogus or offensive viewpoints with words and pens -- with more speech, better speech and with a genuine effort to understand each other.
    Not with hate.
    Not with violence.
    And also not by trying to silence other points of view.
    Is the Charlie Hebdo attack France's 9/11?
    Is the Charlie Hebdo attack France's 9/11?


      Is the Charlie Hebdo attack France's 9/11?


    Is the Charlie Hebdo attack France's 9/11? 04:07
    I worry the effect of the Paris attack could be that artists, writers and storytellers start to think -- even reasonably expect -- that saying or drawing certain things will result in acts of violence.
    If that continues to happen, then none of us is Charlie.
    Unless, of course, we keep creating anyway.
    In 2013, I had the incredible fortune of meeting Ali Ferzat, a Syrian cartoonist who says members of the country's security forces nearly killed him because of his work.
    "Break his arms so that he doesn't ever draw again," he recalls one of the goons saying.
    They beat him up and left him for dead near the airport in Damascus.
    But Ferzat did live to draw again.
    His first cartoon after the attack: An image of Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Russia's Vladimir Putin walking side by side; their legs mingled together to form a Nazi swastika.
    That's speech worth protecting, right now and always.
    May the rest of us be half as brave.