When I was young there was a popular joke: "A man walks into a bar and asks the bartender 'Do you believe in free speech?' 'Yes,' answers the bartender. 'Then may I use your phone?' asks the man." Some may take offense at this joke — believing that it is freedom of expression, instead of the ambiguity of language, that is being satirized. Some may even say that the joke itself should be banned because it is offensive. Others may feel that it is justified to kill anyone who tells the joke.
In over a million kilometers of travel, I have perceived potential danger on only two occasions. One happened in Bogotá, Colombia. It was a false alarm. It was my overreaction to the media focus on kidnappings in that country. A few days later I was in a small Colombian town for Halloween. The local version of that custom had shopkeepers giving away candy outside their store. I did not find anyone saying this custom was offensive and should be banned.
When the film version of the stage musical Les Misérables was released three years ago, many film critics commented, incorrectly, that it was set during the French Revolution. I don't recall anyone stating at the time: "I'm no historian but I know that the French Revolution never happened." If they had, I wonder whether anyone would have countered with: "That view is offensive and anyone expressing it should be silenced." Yet there are those — and some of them do claim to be historians — who deny a different historical event, the Holocaust of World War Two — even seventy-one years after the liberation of Auschwitz. The difference is that many people feel that Holocaust deniers hold offensive views that should be silenced.
Last month saw the one year anniversary of «Je suis Charlie» becoming the new global mantra advocating the right to freedom of expression after people lost their lives in Paris for believing in and practicing that freedom; it passed with little mainstream media attention, perhaps because similar events have become almost weekly occurrences during that year. Just yesterday, similar events in Syria and Nigeria killed around a hundred people. Last month the comedian and actor Sacha Baron Cohen announced that he would retire some of his fictional, comedic characters due to death threats he has received over the years.
Colombia can be a dangerous place. Kidnapping is real and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) in particular have caused mayhem and death in that country for over fifty years. It is the longest-running conflict in the entire Western Hemisphere. Many of Colombia's indigenous people have been the target of both FARC and government activity.
A month and twenty-two days from now will see the deadline for current peace negotiations between the FARC and the Colombian government, following three years of attempts. Recently, the FARC have stated that no deal will be reached by the deadline. Yet just in the last week both sides requested — and secured — approval of a UN Security Council-backed monitoring mission, should a deal be reached. It may be standard political rhetoric, coming just days ahead of President Santos' visit to the United Sates. But, for now at least, for Colombia's indigenous people, there is still a glimmer of hope that they too are Charlie.
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