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Free Speech without Apologies

by Charles C. W. Cooke

When bullets start to fly, who cares who is their target?

I do not care what Pamela Geller thinks about Islam, or about anything else. I do not care whether Geller is a bigot or a freedom fighter. I do not care whether she is right or wrong. I do not care whether she shares or loathes my politics, whether she is theologically ignorant or religiously sound, whether she is a cynical self-promoter or an earnest team player. I do not care whether she is rude or merely blunt. I do not care whether she is selfish or kind. I do not care what is in the deepest recesses of her heart. I care only that, on a Sunday evening in May, in Garland, Texas, two extraordinarily illiberal people hoped to fire bullets into her body until she was dead, and that they intended to do this as a punishment for her blasphemy. Everything besides this fact is irrelevant to me. What matters is that she was shot at for speaking, and that this is a bloody disgrace.

Up until now, I have included in all of my defenses of free speech a preamble in which I have explained what I personally thought of the person I was defending. But having watched the manner in which such qualifications have been used during l’affaire Geller, I shall henceforth do no such thing. Instead, I shall briefly establish that my personal views about a person’s character or cause cannot possibly matter one whit in such a case, and then I shall move on to the only important question at hand — which is whether we are to live as free men, at liberty to speak as we wish, or whether we are to self-censor in the hope that the crocodiles will spare us.

In the correct context, it can be worthwhile to appraise the words and deeds of America’s many provocateurs. At a peaceful debate, it can be edifying to critique the positions that the assembled orators elect freely to put forth. But once the bullets start to fly, such inquiries are rendered immediately and violently moot. One would not react to the news of a rape by asking how short the victim’s skirt was — whatever one’s sartorial tastes — and neither would one take the opportunity to reflect on the quality of a murdered artist’s work or to damn the rhetorical style of an assaulted raconteur, for to do so would be to leave the false impression that the right of free expression is somehow contingent upon the permission of the public, and to suggest, too, that it is possible for a person to speak or to draw or to dress in a manner that justifies her being harmed.

Clearly, it is not — not only because it is never acceptable to meet words or paintings with bombs and with bullets but also because there is no feasible means by which one might credibly determine which topics are legitimate and which are not. Offense, taste, hatred — these all ultimately reside in the eye of the beholder, and there are many beholders’ eyes. By contrast there is one rule to which we all must hew devotedly — namely, Don’t Kill People for Speaking Peacefully — and it is not subjective at all. Indeed, it is clear as day. What does Pamela Geller believe, and what does my opinion of her say about me? Who cares

One answer to the latter question, alas, is: a good chunk of the American commentariat, which has spent much of its time since the attack distancing itself from Geller and suggesting — sometimes openly, sometimes by implication — that she should not be treated as a champion of free expression because she is too vulgar or too provocative or because she has the wrong intentions. This is flatly wrong. If one wishes to understand what separates a person who is “standing up for free speech” from a person who is merely speaking within a free market of ideas, one must look not at what that person is saying but at how his enemies are treating him. At present there is a clear and obvious difference between the consequences that will attach to a speaker who mocks, say, the pope and a speaker who mocks Mohammed, and, as a result, there is a difference in the meaning of their mockery.

Insulting as it might be to the people of Salt Lake City, the musical The Book of Mormon cannot credibly be said to be striking a blow for “free speech,” because nobody whom it might offend is trying to hurt the cast. The relevant questions for a person intrigued by the show, then, are: Is it funny? Is it well written? Is it gratuitously offensive? Do I like the people who made it? Would I recommend it to others? Is there any merit to it? By contrast, the cartoons of Mohammed that were put out by Charlie Hebdo and by Pamela Geller’s friends are not there to be judged as if they were any standard work of art; they are there to make a broader point. Unless one believes that it can sometimes be right to shoot people for expressing themselves, the content of these cartoons is immaterial, and the relevant question is whom we are going to blame for the violence: the victim or the perpetrator?

Which is to say that once we have crossed the line into violence, the equations change dramatically. Writing in The Atlantic, David Frum put it well: “When vigilantes try to enforce the tenets of a faith by violence, then it becomes a civic obligation to stand up to them.” How nuanced or tasteful or respectful those who fulfill this obligation might be is entirely beside the point. Their contributions are not there to entertain; they are there to establish civic norms. Fittingly enough, the winning entry in Geller’s “Draw Mohammed” competition summed this up neatly. “You can’t draw me,” an angry Mohammed is seen to be saying. “That’s why I draw you,” replies the artist.

In my experience, there are two main reasons that so many commentators who are ostensibly happy to defend free speech nevertheless share personal reservations in their preambles. The first is that they wish to establish themselves as people of good taste — as people, that is, who dislike people like Pamela Geller. The second, which is related, is that they are well aware that many people in their audience simply do not understand that to defend a principle is not to express admiration for all who act on it. On a purely human level, the desire to clarify one’s private perspectives is understandable. But one cannot help but feel that, in this case at least, it is counterproductive.

In the long run there can be only two possible outcomes to this fight: Either Americans will eventually learn that they should not provoke radical Muslims, and thus that self-censorship is the order of the day, or radical Muslims will learn not to be provoked. Whether they have intended to or not, those who have proposed that Pamela Geller and her ilk should voluntarily refrain from provoking Islam’s discontents have run the risk of tacitly endorsing the former outcome. Is “I don’t like Pamela Geller, but she shouldn’t have been shot at for hosting a ‘Draw Mohammed’ competition” really a stronger argument than the much blunter “Pamela Geller shouldn’t have been shot at for hosting a ‘Draw Mohammed’ competition”?

It is not just the champions of free expression who have an interest in the removal of this problem from American life; the champions of Islam do, too. In the last decade or so, the tendency of certain Muslim groups to react to mockery or criticism with violence has prompted many on the left to offer a characterization of the Islamic world that is flatly — almost comically — self-contradictory. Islam, we are told by its apologists, is an unthreatening religion of peace, and it should not be feared in the way that it is. But, it is suggested in tandem, it is also a religion that is chock full of adherents who are likely to kill you if you say or draw anything that offends them — and in consequence should not be provoked. There is, it should be clear, only one liberal way for this circle to be squared, and that is for the Muslim world to realize that there will be no indulgence of violence here in America. Only when this has been achieved will the claim that there is no problem to be dealt with hold up to scrutiny. Only when her words are not reflexively met with a volley of bullets will it be reasonable for people to say in earnest, “I hear Pamela Geller is being provocative again. What do you think of what she’s saying?”

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