Fear, Terrorism, and Freedom of Expression

Several years ago, I found myself in decided disagreement with the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, who is otherwise one of my philosophical heroes, particularly for his writings on religious identity and violence. In his book, The Idea of Justice, Sen, in a discussion of rights as freedoms, poses five hypothetical scenarios affecting hypothetical person, Rehana. (Signficantly Sen also identifies Rehana as a woman through his use of the feminine pronoun,)  The hypotheticals involve freedom from assault, freedom to basic medical attention for a serious medical problem, “freedom not to be called up regularly and at odd hours by her neighbors whom she detests,” freedom to achieve tranquility, and “freedom from fear” of some detrimental action to one’s person or self. (See discussion at pp, 366-370.)

Somewhat oddly, I found myself fixated on the third freedom, which seems much less serious than freedom from assault or lack of medical care, and less philosophically significant than freedom of tranquility or freedom from fear. More specifically, I found myself thinking about the way in which a violation of the freedom from neighborly nuisance could be very significant, indeed–mostly for the way in which its violation could end up jeopardizing all four of the other freedoms in Sen’s hypotheticals, especially if one is a woman and extra-especially if one is a woman living in a misogynistic culture.

Even while not a regular consumer of Lifetime channel movies featuring “women in jeopardy,” I found myself thinking of stalker-type scenarios, as well as privacy, even in an era in which privacy seems to be on the wane.  Even if I had no reason to think that the neighbor was violent–maybe he was simply socially unskilled or clueless–what would be the purpose of calling or even more intrusively knocking on the door at odds hours? (It’s worth noting that Sen identifies the neighbor as masculine.) Is it to find out whether I am home and thus keep track of my whereabouts? More sinisterly, does the neighbor already know that I am home through visual, auditory, cyber, or other form monitoring?

Going through the various possibilities and the not infrequent incidence of violence in our culture, I quickly envisioned possibilities that might escalate to assault, serious injury warranting medical care, or even death. Certainly, the possibilities for tranquility and freedom from fear would already be compromised. Even so, Sen dismisses the freedom from neighborly nuisance as “not, in general, reason enough to cross the threshold of social relevance to qualify as a human right.” (368) I, for one, found it to be highly relevant..Am I just a “woman in jep” malgré eux?

Over the last several weeks, from the cyber-attack on Sony Pictures attributed to agents of the state of North Korea, reportedly incensed over the imminent release of the film, “The Interview,”  containing an assassination scene in which North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s head explodes to the tune of the Katy Perry song “Firework,” to the murders of editors and cartoonists at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, by two Algerian-French brothers, with Islamic jihadist aspirations, who were incensed by the magazines’s publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, the world has been aflame with questions concerning fear, terrorism, and freedom of expression.

Sony Pictures originally decided against showing “The Interview” out of fear of attacks on the movie theaters that showed it. In the aftermath of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado theater attack by a lone, mentally ill gunman, these fears do not seem unrealistic.  Nonetheless, the movie company was strongly criticized by government officials and even President Obama for reacting in haste.  It was also criticized by many online commenters to news and blog pieces on the Sony decision, most of them loudly trumpeting the American predilection for free speech. It is a predilection apparently shared by a majority of the justices on the United States Supreme Court, who have in recent years defended animal “snuff” films and the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest private funerals of fallen soldiers with homophobic messages.  (A sneak preview of coming attractions at the Supreme Court in just a bit.)

In France, the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was a seemingly unified protest by the French people and their government, joined in a high-profile march by world leaders, defending freedom of expression as reflective of the highest French national values.  But Charlie Hebdo had been attacked previously, one recent event necessitating a move to a new office after the old one was destroyed.  French government officials are also said to have warned the Charlie Hebdo editors of the serious consequences that could attach to their publication of representations of the Prophet Mohammed seen as “blasphemous” in the Muslim world. After all, much as the publication of Danish cartoons in 2005 prompted deadly riots in Nigeria, the Charlie Hebdo incident is said to have prompted riots in Niger. In our globally connected and globally conscious world, the effects of these free expressions can now be felt far and wide.

Evoking the recent attacks on an American consulate in Benghazi, the French government is even said to have raised with the Charlie Hebdo editors the possibility of the closure of embassies in countries where violence against French installations could result. Having to close down and possibly evacuate embassies is not a trivial or insignificant cost of free speech. At a recent course on “Religion and Conflict: Practical Policy Responses” that I taught with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in Prishtina, Kosovo–a course interrupted at midpoint by the events in France–participants debated many possible responses, but also spoke of the need to take responsibility for things that happen in our free and democratic societies and particularly the problem of marginalizing those who would do harm as “lone wolves” or “mentally ill.” There was a sense that we have some responsibility for the evildoers in our midst–but also a need to understand and protect ourselves from them.

I will likely be writing more on religious freedom and freedom of expression in the coming weeks, once I sift through the volume of writings, opinions, and perspectives that continue to pour out in connection with the Charlie Hebdo and Sony Pictures incidents. (The brouhaha over “The Interview” arguably involves religious freedom of a sort since the Kims are near demigods in the North Korean state mythology.)  But in the meantime, the American commitment to freedom of expression is poised to undergo another test at the United States Supreme Court in the case of Elonis v. United States, which is said to be likely to result in a decision this summer. The case does not involve religious or political terrorism, but it does involve terror of a sort that Sen’s Rehana would likely in the form of a nuisance from a source much more intimate than a neighbor.

The case involved the actions of one Anthony Elonis, a Pennsylvania man who posted violent threats of violence against his ex-wife and two children on a Facebook page set for public view. When he began to post similarly violent threats against the local police and FBI agents sent to investigate him–but not, significantly until then, threats against ex-wives being a dime a dozen in our culture–he was convicted in federal district court of five counts of transmitting in interstate commerce a “threat to injure the person of another.”  The Supreme Court’s decision will hinge on the sufficiency of the statutory burden of proof requiring that “a reasonable person would foresee that the statement would be interpreted by those to whom the maker communicates the statement as a serious expression of an intention to inflict bodily harm” or whether the state must prove that Elonis had a “subjective intent to threaten.”

One of the aspects that connects this “domestic terrorism” to international terrorism is what can be said to be a common goal of both–namely, to instill fear that is notably not directed at a specific and focused threat, but rather a more diffuse and all-encompassing fear of events that may at times seem hard to predict or even random.  It is being said that we are in a new era of political terrorism in which threat may, indeed, emerge from “lone wolves” or small “wolf packs” in ways that defy our ability to imagine or anticipate them.

But the reasonable fear of Elonis’ wife (and maybe of Sen’s Rehana) does not seem so unpredictable.  The United States, like many if not most a countries around the world, including supposedly “advanced” societies, has shockingly high levels of violence against women, especially violence among intimates.  In such cases, the threat may be the harm, if it comes to constrain women’s actions, or offend people’s religions, or chill freedom of the press, or impinge on diplomatic relations of states.  In such cases, free speech may not be very free at all–it may come a very high price. Something to watch as the United States Supreme Court decides the Elonis v. United States case this summer. Who will be the victor–freedom or fear?

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