Want to terrorize a terrorist? Try a bit of 'freedom'

November 19, 2015

By Gene Policinski

Want to know how to terrorize a terrorist? Read the 45 words of the First Amendment — preferably aloud.

Airstrikes and drone strikes? Threats and condemnations from the leaders of the most powerful nations in the history of the planet? Targeted assassinations at home or abroad?

To some degree, those tactics may well put fear in the shadowy collections of would-be dictators and pseudo-religious fanatics now operating around the world. And certainly the quick French response — including the raid in which the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 13 attacks died — should serve as a graphic demonstration of speedy justice.

But simply go out to a cafe in Paris for a relaxed evening of conversation, free of government or despotic controls on your opinions, your music or your ideas. ISIS can't handle that. Worship a bit differently than others in Baghdad or Aleppo, or a dozen other places — and extremists strike. Or just visit a market in Yola or Lagos, Nigeria, where Boko Haram and others are trying to strangle a developing and diverse society. And that's just in the last few weeks.

Freedom of expression and religious liberty, it would seem, really do terrorize terrorists.

These ragtag collections of misguided zealots are so frightened by such simple daily declarations of freedom that they have been driven to shoot, stab, bomb and execute — most recently, 132 people in Paris; more than 50 people in Nigeria; and 43 people in Beirut.

For the nations and societies that have been targeted, the stepped-up pace of the mass killings brought a new, if fragile, sense of cooperation. The result: Nightly news reports of military action.

But what about the rest of us? Well, there's a simple, two-step tactic — an approach rooted in the fright felt by these terrorists.

Step One: Live freely. Step Two: Repeat step one. Daily.

Those core freedoms — in the U.S., the freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition — are under challenge and attack in so many places, from the cowardly killing of innocents in heartless attacks, to gore-filled cyberspace campaigns spewing hatred, to the intentional misuse of legal structures to impede, imprison and imperil those who would think, write, speak and worship freely.

Terrorists and hijacked governments try each day to silence those in opposition. But those who fear freedom so greatly will be terrorized every single day by the mere sight of freedom and the empowerment it brings to individuals.

Doubt that freedom has the power to frighten? Just go online and catch the verve, nerve and sense of solidarity shown in recent days by children and adults, concert-goers and sports fans around the world, all singing the "Marseillaise," the French national anthem.

There also are some things we don't want to do. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) wants the federal government to block Internet sites used by the Islamic State. Barton conceded that such sites still will "pop up like weeds," and in fact said he supports the concept of free speech, but he still has asked the Federal Communications Commission to battle ISIS through control of content.

But restraints on the marketplace of ideas advanced by the terror groups will only fuel misunderstandings, prevent the rest of us from seeing savagery and hatred close-up, and give censors a new, "well, you do it too" excuse. Better the real devils we do know, than to encourage new ones.

And journalists worldwide must acknowledge a tragic equality in attacks around the world, so that the opponents of freedom can't divide its supporters with claims that media attention or national sympathy only happens with attacks in the West — a claim already being made regarding news coverage of the Paris attacks versus the world attention paid to the two Beirut bombings, and now Nigeria. In fact, there are real differences in the nature of the tragedies, from their scope to ready access by news media to the shock of an attack in a "safe" city.

Satire, as it so often has in history, draws out the truth in things even as it makes us laugh. John Oliver, host of HBO's "Last Week Tonight," opened his latest show with a short commentary on the Paris tragedy, just 48 hours after it occurred. He mocked the killers in what he accurately described as "a moment of premium-cable profanity."

"Nothing about what these (attackers) are trying to do is going to work," Oliver said, after declaring the killers followed a "bankrupt" ideology. "France is going to endure, and I'll tell you why: If you're in a war of culture and lifestyle with France, good ... luck."

Now that bit of free speech ought to terrorize any terrorist who hears it.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter: @genefac.

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