Attacks on Free Speech Come to the U.S.

Earlier this year, there were the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris and at a free speech event in Copenhagen. Before that, cartoonist Molly Norris had to go into hiding after launching “draw Muhammad day.” That followed threats against Trey Parker and Matt Stone for including Muhammad in episodes of South Park. In 2006, there were the plots against the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and death threats against its editor, Flemming Rose, for publishing Muhammad cartoons. The cartoonists, themselves, have all lived in fear of attack since drawing Muhammad. In 2004, Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered for making a film that Muslims found offensive. His collaborator, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, has lived under constant threat of death ever since.

As Peter Bergen argues in a piece for CNN, it was inevitable that one day actual violence over speech that Muslims find offensive would reach our shores.

Now it’s happened. On Sunday, two gunmen opened fire at the “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” in Garland, Texas. Police shot and killed the two gunmen. One security guard was injured, but it appears the injuries were not serious. We can be thankful for that.

Must Americans now become accustomed to this sort of violence?

Unfortunately, the prognosis is not good. As I wrote last week, many intellectuals in America and elsewhere have taken an attitude of appeasement toward the terrorists and their sympathizers, thus ensuring that their attacks will continue. Of course, violence is not justified, they say, but should we really go out of our way to celebrate those who offend others or humiliate “marginalized” groups? (In this case, the answer is “yes.”)

Already, we are seeing that attitude toward the organizers of the event in Garland, who are being called “Islamophobes” and purveyors of “hate speech,” always with the caveat that of course violence is not justified.

But this attitude is a form of justifying violence, in the same way that criticizing a rape victim for dressing provocatively is a justification of rape. It says, you brought this on yourself, or you provoked your assailant, or you are the type of person who deserved this. In all events, the message is that your actions, not the actions of your assailants, are the relevant cause of the attack.

There are many circumstances in which it’s appropriate not to take sides in a debate or to criticize one side or the other or both. But that applies only when there actually is a debate to take sides in or to ignore. It seems too obvious to point out, but a debate does not exist when one side is trying to kill the other.

The moment someone resorts to violence in response to speech is the moment that the issue is no longer about the merits of any side’s position or the character of the speakers but about whether we are going to have the freedom to take positions — that is, to think for ourselves — at all. If we fail to support those who are trying to speak, we necessarily end up condoning, and therefore supporting, those who are willing to resort to violence. There’s no middle ground in a dispute like this, because there’s no middle ground between speech and force. Free speech cannot exist when some people are willing to resort to force.

Whatever one thinks about Charlie Hebdo and the organizers of the Garland event or of any of the arguments or positions they take or support, there is no question that Islamists who threaten and use violence want to shut down all debate, all discussion, all thought, and all criticism of their religion. That is why they resort to violence.

If we don’t stand against them and in support of those who have the courage to continue criticizing them in the face of threats, then our right to free speech won’t be worth much. Eventually, we will lose it. Long before that, we will deserve to.