On Sunday evening, two gunmen sought to reenact in suburban Dallas the horrors of January’s attack on French humor magazine Charlie Hebdo. That they failed to reach their target — a Mohammed-cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, sponsored by Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative — was thanks to the lethal aim of a nearby traffic cop. Because of the favorable conclusion to the incident (no one was injured except a private security guard, shot in the ankle), jokes about the quick-drawing esprit de Texas have been ubiquitous. But it is sobering to note the thin line that separated a happy ending from horror.
Elton Simpson, one of the two gunmen (the other has not yet been named), was a convert to Islam who had been the subject of an FBI terror investigation. In 2010 the Phoenix resident was convicted of lying to federal agents about his plans to travel to Somalia — a popular destination for aspiring terrorists. Recordings taken by a government informant revealed the extent of his religious fervor: “If you get shot, or you get killed, it’s [heaven] straight away.” Minutes before the Texas attack, Simpson reportedly tweeted that he and his fellow assailant “have given bay’ah to Amirul Mu’mineen” — that is, pledged allegiance to the “Commander of the Faithful,” a common title for Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The tweet featured the hashtag “#texasattack.”
Of course, rather than focus on these would-be martyrs and how they became radicalized, much of the media reaction has dwelt on Geller and her “history of hate,” in the Daily Mail’s phrase. While sponsoring a prize for the best caricature of Muhammad may be a noxious pastime — and Geller has, indeed, made a career as a provocatrix — her contest is precisely the type of “free speech” protected by the First Amendment. And it is objectionable, potentially offensive speech that requires the most vigorous defense. Freedom of speech that excludes disagreeable speech from its protections is no freedom at all.
Terrorists cannot be accommodated out of existence. Addressing that reality plainly now will help us prevent attacks in the future.
But behind the impulse to exclude Geller and those like her from the law’s protections is a desire (usually implicit, but often outright) to blame her for her own misfortunes. If Geller does not want terrorist attacks, goes the charge, she should stop hosting provocative cartoon contests. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the threat that Simpson and those like him pose. Extremism is not ameliorated by acquiescence. If it is not an AFDI event, it will be something else. The form of psychopathology that thinks heaven is achieved in a hail of bullets outside the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, will find an occasion to wreak jihad, cartoons or no cartoons.
Criticizing and seeking to quash the targets of terrorism, rather than the fanatics who commit it, is the American Left’s own pathology. Terrorists cannot be accommodated out of existence. Addressing that reality plainly now will help us prevent attacks in the future — which are being planned, in Arizona and Aleppo, whatever Pamela Geller does or does not do.