Wednesday, January 7 was a magnificent day. One of those days that bring news so exciting and inspiring that it reminded us of how truly wonderful life can be. Such days are all too rare and need to be savoured whenever we are lucky enough for them to come by. Although it may take a while, I’m confident that it is a day that we will later look back on as one that heralded a better future for millions of people.
Of course, at this point any reader who is even half-awake is convinced that either I have my dates wrong or I’ve taken complete leave of my senses. After all, that was the day of the appalling massacre of 12 people at the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. It was a crime both gruesome and shocking—committed by Islamist terrorists to “avenge” their prophet Muhammad, whom the publication had caricatured repeatedly. As such, it was a direct and bloody assault on freedom of speech. Rest assured, gentle reader, that I am most certainly not referring to those events.
The news that inspired me was something very different, something that went largely unnoticed since it broke on the same day as the bloodbath. Nevertheless, it was at least as important and attention worthy: scientists at Northeastern University announced that that they had discovered Teixobactin, a new antibiotic. While that may seem banal, it was anything but.
Ever since the discovery of penicillin almost a century ago, modern medicine has been in an arms race against bacteria; as they develop resistance that renders existing treatments ineffective, we discover new ways of killing them. For over half a century, researchers managed to stay one step ahead of the microbes. But in the late 1980s, the fight stalled as new discoveries dried up completely. As drug-resistant bacterial strains became increasingly common and science was unable to develop new weapons to combat them, doctors warned that we could return to the days when every infection was quite possibly lethal—the days when even US President Calvin Coolidge’s son could die from a simple blister resulting from a tennis game. Teixobactin is the first ray of hope in a long time that such a future is avoidable.
The announcement was doubly promising, as not only had the researchers discovered a new antibiotic, but had done so in an altogether new way that augurs further discoveries to come. While scientists have long known that soil microbes are teeming with antibiotic properties, they had been unable to cultivate them in a laboratory. The Northwestern team helped develop a new device, called an iChip, which allowed them to isolate and ultimately harness the antibiotic compounds in the dirt. Science had not only unlocked a new weapon in our fight, but given us a new tool to discover yet more.
So why am I talking about these two unrelated stories in the same breath? Simply put, nothing could better exemplify why I am optimistic in the fight against the kind of barbarism witnessed in Paris than Teixobactin. The butchers who perpetrated the massacre at Charlie Hebdo were armed to the teeth with machine guns, a shotgun and even a rocket launcher. They appeared to be well-versed in the killing arts, moving and attacking like professionals. But the perpetrators of this hideous act and their ideological bedfellows worldwide have no way to advance their cause other than their weaponry. They have nothing in their toolbox except firepower. While that is no small advantage, they are totally bereft of that without which a movement can never triumph: vision, ideas and hope. Instead, all these savages can offer would-be recruits and citizens is a society in which human beings relate to one another only through power and violence and where poverty, ignorance and misery are endemic.
Teixobactin embodies the very opposite, in every way imaginable. Teixobactin is the fruit of a world based on liberty, on individualism and on the ability to seek knowledge and truth. It is a world where people are free to speak their minds, to think for themselves, to pursue happiness and to relate to one another based on mutual respect and voluntary cooperation. It is a world replete with everything that is good, noble and desirable—prosperity, joy, pleasure and contentment. A world where there are no limits—cultural, scientific, or otherwise—that restrict human beings in our endless struggle to lead healthier, longer and better lives. It is a world that every sane person, everywhere and always, wants for themselves and their children.
Like the anti-civilizational barbarians who preceded them—the Communists, the Nazis, and others—the nihilists who destroy all they see in the name of Islam may gain a temporary advantage through their use of violence, but no group of people can rule others through force alone indefinitely. In time, those under the sway of these thugs will realize that they have been led down the garden path, and those under their boot will rise up in defiance.
The battle of ideas will be long, difficult and bloody—but its outcome is foretold. The future belongs not to those who promulgate a civilization based on hatred, suffering and pain, but to those who call for one based on openness, tolerance and freedom—for it is theirs that provides us with the opportunity to lead the good life. Teixobactin is the perfect shorthand for that civilization. No armoury on Earth has enough Kalashnikovs, grenades or missiles to prevail over Teixobactin and everything that it represents.
But until the final victory—and even beyond—we would do well to salute the courage of those brave men who became martyrs for freedom of speech. And we would do well to honour their legacy by abolishing the considerable restrictions to free expression that remain in effect in our societies—impediments that smack of hypocrisy and only hinder the climate of free and open exchange of ideas that makes possible such miracles as Teixobactin.
Je suis Charlie.
* Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B.A. and an M.A. in political science from McGill.