Yesterday’s news about the horrific massacre in Paris shook me really hard. I spent the day very upset, and the night puzzled by my extreme reaction. Terrorism attacks have virtually become fixtures of the daily news, with yesterday alone over a dozen killed in Iraq. Why did this bother me so much?
I think I’m beginning to know the answer. I was born and raised in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who maintained an iron grip on all forms of communication in the country. No newspaper or TV station or media outlet of any kind was allowed to so much as squeal about the government’s brutality or incompetence. Criticizing Saddam, outside of the tightest and most trusted of family circles, was unthinkable. I developed strong and trusted friendships in elementary school, but never once did the subject of the regime, the most important and profound aspect of our daily lives, ever come up in conversation. And it was common knowledge why. If even one of my friends snitched, everyone else who did not would be in trouble. This was elementary school.
I would often day dream about running up to the roof of our building and shouting at the top of my lungs that I despised Saddam, that I wished him dead. I was 6 or 7 at the time, and that was my day dream.
When I immigrated to the United States, I was skeptical that in any country it would be possible to speak freely. Were people really able to criticize their president? Even call him (or one day her!) names? I was unconvinced, and remained so for years. I would come to discover that there were in fact limits. One cannot incite violence, or knowingly slander a non-public figure. But these were rules that made sense, that enabled as much free speech as possible while protecting everyone’s right to life and liberty.
If there is a single right, a single convenience, a single perk of living in the West that I would not depart with, it would be my right to free speech. Let me repeat this. If there is one single thing I would retain about my life in a democracy, it is the right to free speech. It is that important to me. More than my ability to do research. Or to code. Or do the many other things that define my identity. I would give all those up without giving up my right to free speech.
The reason yesterday’s attacks bothered me so much is because they were directed squarely at me. Je suis Charlie indeed.