Je suis Charlie. That should be obvious. But in all the principled talk recently of defending to the death the right of others to say, express or display hurtful, disagreeable or offensive sentiments it has been overlooked that pragmatic curtailments of harmful behaviours can do more to guarantee wider freedoms than any sixth-form libertarian grandstanding about absolutes and lines-in-the-sand ever will or could. Harmful behaviours like shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre, or starting a small fire in a crowded theatre on the end of a small white tube, i.e. smoking in a public place.
It was estimated that something like three million people took to the streets of France on Sunday to show solidarity with the publishers of Charlie Hebdo – the largest street protest in living French memory. But it’s an absolute certainty there would have been even more if smokers had not been allowed to light up and turn this display of unity into a giant ashtray in the heart of the capital that gave us Louis Pasteur, Charles Frédéric Gerhardt (the discoverer of aspirin), Rene Laennec (the inventor of the stethoscope), and – most poignantly – Antoine Lavoisier (the discoverer of oxygen).
We were even more dismayed this morning, however, to discover what Charlie Hebdo decided to put on their new front cover (the first since the attacks of 9/1). It seems not only their editorial office was invaded a week ago but that since then, as PG Wodehouse would put it, the council of their reason has suffered something in the nature of an insurrection too. The image chosen is one of the Prophet Mohammed apparently calming his jangled nerves with a soggy role-up:
Now, of course, we are the first to accept that violence of the sort we’ve witnessed this week inevitably raises blood pressure, heightens tensions, wrong-foots the nerves and whammies the whole operating system if we can put it like that – so much so that staying in bed for the week would be a sane response. But to make the explicit connection that smoking is a blessed sanctuary from all this? In the first place this is extremely irresponsible (not just to Muslims, but to all of us), and in the second place it is actually legally – not just morally – but legally proscribed.
This last week has been – to put it baldly – mad. Let’s not make it any madder.