Bouchra Bagour is facing criminal charges in southern France for sending her son, Jihad, to nursery school wearing a T-shirt that read: “I am a bomb. Jihad, born on 11 September.” The shirt was a gift from the boy’s uncle.
Bagour has denied “defending terrorism” in court, claiming to have put the shirt on her son “without stopping to think about it.” But intentional or not, her actions touch on topics that are clearly difficult to discuss: censorship, “terrorism,” and how people are allowed to express their thoughts about it.
Bagour’s official criminal charge is “glorifying crime.” I’m somewhat familiar with France’s restrictive speech laws, and I know that “hate speech” is unprotected. Whether “glorifying crime” falls under this umbrella, especially given the East-West binary presented in much 9/11 discourse, is an important question. I’d be curious to know if an Al Capone T-shirt would receive similar treatment from a legal standpoint, for example.
It’s further interesting that this incident took place in France. We generally think of the September 11 World Trade Center attacks in terms of how they impacted Americans, ignoring their global impact. Aside from the nations we invaded in its aftermath, we tend to forget that other countries are on America’s “side” in this so-called “war on terror.” The French and the British, for example, clearly have political stakes in whatever America’s trying to achieve through this conflict.
September 11 is a sensitive topic that carries very real and current pain for many people. If the shirt was meant as humor, its joke falls on deaf ears. The boy’s uncle, Zeyad Bagour, told the court: "It's the day [of] his birth I wanted to highlight, not the year." But the combination of elements certainly does him no favors as a co-defendant. That the boy’s name is Jihad, and September 11, 2001 is popularly conceived of as part of a “jihad,” or holy war, is so blatantly obvious in its implications that it’s hard to believe neither Mr. or Ms. Bagour thought twice about it.
The real issue is whether speech should be restricted in the face of such sensitive topics. It’d be one thing if the boy’s school didn’t approve, and doled out consequences in accordance with a school policy. That the law is involved, and the Bagours face fines and jail time, means something else entirely.
In pre-Patriot Act America, there would be no legal consequences for wearing this T-shirt. No matter how sensitive the subject, words that did not directly incite violence, defame or slander, or display obscene content were protected by the First Amendment.
But now, things are different. The Patriot Act has outlawed providing material support for “terrorism” (clearly a loosely-defined term), and the “I am a bomb” shirt might put this measure to the test. Still, regardless of its applications, the First Amendment is something Americans should value enough to defend the Bagours. Even if it hurts, it’s one of the nobler parts of what this nation claims to stand for.
France is clearly a different story. But I’m sure plenty of patriotic Americans are glad the French are punishing this shirt.