A hypothesis for discussion:
Charlie Hebdo is not about freedom of speech. It’s about the state monopoly on violence: “the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it” (Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation”). The caricaturists’ “freedom of speech” protects them from state suppression or punishment of their speech as speech. Because they were offended by what the Charlie Hebdo caricaturists drew, the murderers claimed the state’s “right to use physical force” as their own. Such vigilante justice is what should be condemned here; no defense of “freedom of speech” is necessary (or even appropriate?).
This gets an at important part of my reaction to the attack. The "freedom of speech" issue only arises (for me at least) when an institution like the state punishes someone for what they say. An argument can be made that if you're fired for saying something your employer doesn't want said then your right to free speech has been violated in some sense. (Or it could be argued that it just goes to show that employees don't have the right to speak freely.) But the classic case is when the police come to your door.
Clearly, if you make someone angry with your words and they punch you in the mouth, this isn't a "free speech" issue. It is, like you say, an assault.
But in this case things are complicated (in my mind) by the pretty obvious abuses of state power over the past few decades. If the "the State" (i.e., the Western democracies) has a "kill list", tortures, invades whole countries, etc. then it's pretty hard to respect its monopoly on violence. There's a specific danger in angering people who don't have such respect for the state, who are not going to leave violent to the state.
In most cases when I have occasion to speak the idea that I might get shot or even punched in the mouth doesn't even occur to me. That does actually get me in trouble sometimes--I speak too freely. I'd be horrified if someone called the police on me and the police actually intervened. But sometimes even the threat of spontaneous violence can be sobering. "Oh, yeah," I think to myself, "that was actually kind of a mean thing to say."
(I wrote about this sort of thing six years ago in relation to the Danish cartoons.)
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