Point of View Columns

Playing with Fire

Last week, someone named Pamela Geller was directly responsible for organizing a “Draw Muhammad” cartoon contest in Garland, Texas. As was her clear intention, the contest provoked a furious reaction from the national and international Muslim community. Two gunmen actually showed up planning to kill the attendees and participants and the two gunmen were shot and killed. And Pamela Geller’s perversion of the concept of freedom of speech was certainly a contributing factor to these two deaths.

Indeed, Ms. Geller’s actions were so blatantly and transparently provocative that one must wonder if her true goal, her secret hope, was that the gunmen would actually kill some of the attendees and participants in Garland thereby proving her “point” that followers of Islam are less worthy than believers in other religions. There is no question that horrific and despicable conduct has taken place by individuals and groups who claim to be Muslims. That truth does not permit Ms. Geller, or anyone else, to conclude that Islam is evil or that all Muslims are worthy of contempt and disrespect.

The story of humanity tells us that many great crimes have been carried out in the name of one religion or another. The Bible tells us how the Israelites slew countless Philistines. In India Muslims have slaughtered Hindus and Hindus have slaughtered Muslims. And the history of Christianity is literally written in blood flowing from the Crusades to the Inquisition to countless pogroms and genocidal horrors in Europe, Africa, North America, South America and Asia.

Yet, most sane and rational people do not choose to condemn Catholicism because of all the Muslims that were killed during the Crusades. We still respect Judaism and Protestantism despite the crimes committed in their name. Why Ms. Geller has gone on this weird and contemptible decades-long tirade against Islam is a question that only she may be able to answer during her sad and lonely and infrequent moments of self-reflection.

What must also be pointed out is that freedom of speech as a concept is not unlimited and without restraint. Not should one not falsely yell “Fire” in a theater, defaming someone or threatening a crime can result in real legal consequences.

But putting aside strictly legal considerations, there are also basic standards of conduct between humans that include respect and the notion that insulting, shaming or intentionally offending another person is not useful behavior and typically is not conduct that is honored or condoned. Acceptable behavior does not usually include behavior that is intended to provoke and outrage.

Which brings us to the raging controversy regarding as to whether cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad should be protected as free speech. If the question is answered in a vacuum, it would probably be answered in the affirmative.

But we do not live in a vacuum. We live on the Planet Earth with three billion other people and if one knows that these cartoons enrage some followers of Islam to the point of committing murder and mayhem, then what is the point? I am not clear that drawing and publishing cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad that are known to provoke and outrage large numbers of people is worth men, women and children dying.

To repeatedly draw and publish these cartoons seems to be unnecessarily provocative and unworthy of any artist. And, of course, people like Pamela Geller will cover themselves with the fig leaf of freedom speech which does little to hide her naked aggression and hate.

And this is what happens when any freedom, including freedom of speech is abused in the extreme – people die, people suffer and then people hate some more.

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