[I]t is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal. Moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions.
Cole's essay points out that the treatment of Muslims in France (including in the pages of Charlie Hebdo) is far too often pervasively and systematically racist and hateful, and that the murders of satirical cartoonists is part of a complex of anti-free speech actions. Cole further notes that we chose to treat some victims of anti-free-speech acts specially. To treat this attack as a singular point is a mistake, not because any amount of racism justifies murder but because our reaction to this moment of horrible violence serves to obscure daily systematic threats to free expression (see for example the PEN Web site) that too often emanate from the very same leaders and countries we saw marching in memory of the Charlie victims.
Cole's essay also mentions a pivotal moment in my own life: the day a neo-Nazi group chose to try to stage a march through the American town of Skokie, Illinois. That town was heavily Jewish and included families of Holocaust survivors. The ACLU chose to defend the marchers' rights to assemble and express their hateful views. It was the first time I can remember having a serious adult fight with my father. I thought the ACLU was right and as Cole says:
The extreme offensiveness of the marchers, absent a particular threat of violence, was not and should not be illegal. But no sensible person takes a defense of those First Amendment rights as a defense of Nazi beliefs.
In fact my father and many others took a defense of those rights as a sign of agreement with the viewpoint of the marchers. I became a student member of the ACLU using my own money, and the topic was forbidden from discussion at my parents' house.
I cannot find words better than those others have written to condemn the murders of the cartoonists and editors at Charlie Hebdo, the hostages killed in subsequent days, and the police who attempted to defend these victims. But I am no more in sympathy with this racism and Islamophobia than I was in sympathy with the neo-Nazi's racism and anti-Semitism.