By now most people know the story. Two ISIS-inspired gunmen, Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, were killed outside a Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest in Garland, Texas. Equipped with body armor and assault weapons, the gunmen’s goal was to massacre those attending the May 3 event, hosted by the American Freedom Defense Initiative. The cartoon contest featured depictions of Muhammed, which many Muslims consider sacrilege.
What’s worth commenting on is the media narrative in the aftermath of the near-slaughter. Much of it focused not on the ISIS-inspired killers but on Pamela Geller, the president of the AFDI. While acknowledging that murdering cartoonists and those who are critical of Islam is wrong, most of the coverage I have seen made Geller the focus of the stories, and not in a positive way. That’s right; more anger and outrage has been directed at her than the would-be killers.
The storyline isn’t about the rise of ISIS-inspired terrorists on the American homeland; it’s on Ms. Geller’s provocations. One cannot help but sense in the coverage that many journalists believe Ms. Geller had this coming. After all, she was using “fighting words” and “hate speech.” The logic of Ms. Geller’s critics goes like this: Ms. Geller was doing something she knew would provoke a violent response and therefore she (the intended victim) is the person to blame. Women are unfortunately all too familiar with this kind of ugly storyline.
For the sake of the argument, let’s say that Ms. Geller was provocative and arguably reckless. Assume, even, that she’s anti-Muslim. In the context of this story, all this strikes me as very nearly beside the point. The media coverage — and the underlying views of many reporters and commentators — is terribly misguided and out of balance. How exactly does organizing a Muhammed cartoon-drawing event make one as villainous, or (for many journalists) more villainous, than jihadists who were about to engage in mass murder because they were upset about cartoon drawings?
To underscore how absurd this whole thing is, consider this thought experiment: A group of radical Methodists planned to gun down people attending a “Piss Christ” event built around a photographer who depicted a small plastic crucifix submerged in a glass of his urine. What this photographer — let’s call him Andrea Serrano — did was far more offensive than merely drawing a cartoon. Yet if militant Christians decided to murder this photographer and those who attended an event built around his work, do you think even a single reporter, columnist, commentator or news producer would frame the story as Mr. Serrano had it coming? Of course not; and if they did, we would be rightly appalled. I, as a Christian, would be more upset than most and much more inclined to express my outrage not at the photographer but at those people who, in the name of their (and my) faith, wanted to kill him and others.
Yet when it comes to Muhammad and the cartoons, we’re supposed to indulge Muslim militancy. We’re expected to take into account, and tiptoe around, the delicate sensibilities of jihadists. Easily provoked, our job is not to trigger a violent response from them. Today it’s a cartoon. Tomorrow it may be a dissertation that is critical of aspects of Muhammed’s life. The following day it may be Bill Maher’s monologue. Jihadists will come up with an endless number of reasons to be offended by us and to kill us. And at every stage and at every point, we’ll be told that we need to conform to the demands of the militants in order to prevent a “clash of civilizations.” Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations.
I find it rather stunning that those whose profession depends on freedom of speech are so eager to cater to those who are undermining it. The thinking of many in the political class seems to be that if cartoons are deemed offensive and off limits by jihadists, then the cartoons are offensive and off limits. Ms. Geller, however imperfect she may be, decided she wouldn’t go along with this game. She wouldn’t play by jihadi rules. If the demand by Islamists is you can’t draw cartoons of Muhammed, her response was: Oh yes we can. Certainly in America we can.
As a general matter, I’m not particularly enthralled with those who mock other people’s faith. But when people, in the name of their faith, threaten to kill you for drawing cartoons, I’m a good deal more understanding of those who will do it just to prove that intimidation tactics don’t work, that the First Amendment lives.
Winston Churchill said that he declined utterly to be impartial as between the fire brigade and the fire. And while I’m no fan of Geller, I decline utterly to be impartial as between Pamela Geller and the jihadists who want to kill her (and us). So should you.