Let’s stop fooling ourselves. The poor victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre are not martyrs to the Western belief in freedom of speech and open democracy.
They are, certainly, victims of hate and the fascist intolerance – not to mention brutal stupidity – of militant Islamists.
But for all Charlie Hebdo’s satirical stance against that religion and, as far as one can tell, against all others as well, they can’t be described as dying for the cause of Liberty.
That’s because Liberty and freedom of speech do not exist.
We pay tribute to these empty ideas and pretend they represent the cornerstone of Western democracy.
But we are wrong to place faith in such a tarnished concept.
It’s simply not true to say we enjoy freedom of speech, whether you are looking at France, Britain, the United States or anywhere else in the so-called free world.
Our freedoms are hemmed in on all sides. We are not free to say or write whatever we want.
In France, for instance, it was for decades unacceptable to reveal details of the private lives of public figures.
That’s why President Mitterrand could have a child by his mistress and nobody noticed. It’s why Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a potential President, could enjoy the kind of sex life Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi thrived on and get away with it until he tried it on with an American chambermaid.
Most British journalists know stories about the great and good which have never seen the light of day.
Some of these stories would – quite rightly – destroy careers if they ever saw the light of day. But the laws of defamation make it very difficult to ‘tell the truth’ about people in powerful positions unless you have absolute proof of their alleged wrongdoing.
Fair enough, you might say. But sometimes that much evidence isn't readily available. It explains why Jimmy Savile and other paedophiles got away with it for years – publishing rumour and gossip is dangerous. You can't get away with it. You’d be sued and bankrupted –even if you’re telling the truth.
As for attacking Islam, well, since Salman Rushdie became subject to a fatwa for his really rather dull novel ’The Satanic Verses’, our great liberal elite has shied away from conflict with Muslims.
It’s still perfectly acceptable to attack Christianity – after all, Christians are likely to turn the other cheek rather than resort to the Kalashnikov. But other faiths – not just Islam – are much less likely to come in for scrutiny let alone satire.
Self-censorship ensures we tiptoe around the Jewish faith, for instance. It is acceptable to attack Israel for its political machinations but it would be beyond the pale to comment adversely on the faith itself or some its own fundamentalist fringe.
We cannot say what we might think on a variety of subjects. Never forget, we now have ‘hate crimes’ which mean that if, for whatever reason, we genuinely and truly loathe a particular faith, race or lifestyle, it is actually illegal to say so.
It may be morally wrong even to harbour such thoughts but the law is now so sensitive to the possibility that someone might be offended that it cracks down on anyone foolish enough to step out of line by saying something controversial.
For example, until the 1960s homosexuality was illegal. Many people still remember when same-sex relationships were simply unacceptable to the vast majority of the population.
Today we have no choice but to accept and, as it were, embrace homosexuality. Personally I couldn't care less but many people still find the whole idea of gay relationships wrong.
Even though not so long ago that would have been a mainstream view, they now have to be very careful what they say. The world has changed and sometimes people are reluctant to change with it.
So what was once mainstream opinion is not simply marginalised, it becomes illegal to express. This is bizarre in a society which prides itself on its freedom.
Meanwhile the Government wants to impose State control on the media following the Leveson inquiry. If politicians had their way, nobody would be able to express any opinion without a licence from the State.
This is mainly to protect actors and comedians from revelations about their sex-and-drugs lifestyles and politicians from disclosures about their financial affairs.
Yet we pride ourselves on our freedom.
Militant Islam is certainly a monstrous enemy. We must root it out and protect ourselves from madmen. We must cherish the freedom we’ve still got and protect it as much as possible from the ultimate silencer.
That includes resisting security service attempts to limit our freedoms even further.
But terrorists have already scored some crushing victories. Few people will risk their lives for the sake of a satirical cartoon. Censorship by Kalashnikov is even more successful than censorship by law.
But the truth is that freedom of speech is dying anyway. ‘Je suis Charlie’?
Non, nous ne sommes pas Charlie.