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Agnostics Anonymous

Within hours of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, a multiple murder turned into a debate about free speech. 'Shouldn't we use free speech responsibly?' agonised the Twitterati and the Facebookers, while Guardian cartoonists drew pictures that balanced the moral scales, so that the publication of a cartoon was evened out by the shooting of 12 of their unarmed colleagues. There's a long history of weighing up these offences. Thomas Aquinas' view was that blasphemy was 'more grave' than murder inasmuch as it was directed at God rather than man, but that murder did more harm (as God is pretty tough, and not injured by being blasphemed against - in which case, we might wonder why it's a crime at all). More recently, Richard Webster, in his 1990 study of The Satanic Verses, argued that the Rushdie affair was 'not a battle between authoritarianism and freedom but a clash between ... two kinds of fundamentalism.' This is a pretty postmodern way of thinking, in which the reality of killing people is indistinguishable from the reality of writing a book, since it all collapses into 'discourse'. Webster is dead now, but this view lives on. 'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.' It's a truism to observe that words can indeed hurt, that bullied teenagers may jump under a train, but it's a sophistical mistake to fail to acknowledge that the train is also a necessary part of the destruction. But then religion is all about turning thought, belief, faith, and other intangibles into something real. Through the mortification of the flesh, transubstantiation, stoning, beheading, or circumcision, religion - or rather, its adherents - seeks to effect physical change in the material world. No campaign of mass violence or murder is complete without its ideological counterpart. Histories of Nazism and totalitarian terrors focus more on the control of art and media than on direct physical repression, more on the architecture than the firing squads. Without the aesthetics, it's just thuggery. What is less often stated is that, as much as violence needs propaganda to lend it justification, propaganda needs violence to give it gravitas. Jihadist imagery without the muscle to back it up is revealed for what it is, a squeaking ball of hate, a sad boy in his bedroom in a balaclava. The Charlie Hebdo murderers are no less pathetic, but Boris 'Shagger' Johnson calling jihadists 'wankers' isn't going to stop any bullets. Thoughts and beliefs are exactly as powerful, and as dangerous, as the physical correlate they can bring in to back them up. And this is why people get more exercised about the limits of free speech when those they offend decide to kill them, rather than writing a sarcastic column, in response.