LAS VEGAS--Of course it was a provocation. In September, the editor of a right-wing Danish newspaper decided "to test cartoonists to see if they were self-censoring their work, out of fear of violence from Islamic radicals." Though some declined, 12 artists accepted the editor's invitation to make light of the Prophet Mohammed, and submitted work equating Islam with terrorism and the oppression of women, among other things.
Five months later, editor Fleming Rose has learned that cartoonists have good reason to watch what they draw. Thousands of demonstrators, furious at the publication's violation of an Islamic stricture banning graphic depictions of the Prophet, marched through the streets of Cairo, Karachi, Istanbul, Teheran and Mehtarlam, Afghanistan, where at least five were killed by police. Gunmen took over the European Union office in Gaza. Mobs burned Danish flags and called for a Muslim boycott of Danish goods. Iran withdrew its ambassador from Copenhagen. Danes were ordered to flee Lebanon after mobs burned the Danish consulates in Damascus and Beirut, where they also trashed a Christian neighborhood. The Danish cartoonists, having been threatened with beheading, are presumably catching up on their Salman Rushdie while they weather the storm.
Adding fuel to the fire, said the Times, were "a group of Denmark's fundamentalist Muslim clerics ... [who] took their show on the road" last fall, traveling around the Middle East showing a package that included cartoons that had never actually appeared in any newspaper, "some depicting Mohammed as a pedophile, a pig or engaged in bestiality." Newspapers in France, Germany and elsewhere further fanned the flames by reprinting the Danish drawings.
Being provoked, as I tell myself when I'm sitting next to Sean Hannity, doesn't justify reacting with violence. And as Kuwaiti oil executive Samia al-Duaij pointed out to Time, there are better reasons to torch embassies than over cartoons: "America kills thousands of Muslims, and you lose your head and withdraw ambassadors over a bunch of cartoons printed in a second-rate paper in a Nordic country with a population of five million? That's the true outrage."
As the only syndicated political cartoonist who also writes a syndicated column, my living depends on freedom of the press. I can't decide who's a bigger threat: the deluded Islamists who hope to impose Sharia law on Western democracies, or the right-wing clash-of-civilization crusaders waving the banner of "free speech"--the same folks who call for the censorship and even murder of anti-Bush cartoonists here--as an excuse to join the post-9/11 Muslims-suck media pile-on. Most reasonable people reject both--but neither is as dangerous to liberty as America's self-censoring newspaper editors and broadcast producers.
"CNN has chosen not to show the [Danish Mohammed] cartoons out of respect for Islam," said the news channel.
"We always weigh the value of the journalistic impact against the impact that publication might have as far as insulting or hurting certain groups," said an editor at The San Francisco Chronicle.
"The cartoons didn't meet our long-held standards for not moving offensive content," said the Associated Press.
If these cowards were worried about offending the faithful, they wouldn't cover or quote such Muslim-bashers as Ann Coulter, Christopher Hitchens or George W. Bush. The truth is, our national nanny media is managed by cowards so terrified by the prospect of their offices being firebombed that they wallow in self-censorship.
Precisely because they subvert free speech from within with their oh-so-reasonable odes for "moderation" and against "sensationalism," the gatekeepers of our national nanny media are more dangerous to Western values than distant mullahs and clueless neocons combined. Editors and producers decide not only what's fit to print but also what's not: flag-draped coffins and body bags arriving from Iraq, photographs of Afghan civilians, their bodies reduced to blobs of blood and protoplasm, all purged from our national consciousness. You might think it's news when the vice president tells a senator to "go f--- yourself" on the Senate floor, but you'd be wrong--only tortured roundabout descriptions (like "f---") make newsprint. "This is a family newspaper," any editor will say, arguing for self-censorship--as if kids couldn't fill in those three letters in "f---."
As if kids read the paper.
The nanny media, even more prudish since 9/11, covers our millions of eyes to protect us from our own icky deeds. In Afghanistan in 2001, while covering a war that had officially killed 12 civilians, I watched a colleague from a major television network collate footage of a B-52 bombing indiscriminately obliterating a civilian neighborhood. "If people saw what bombing looks like here on the ground," he observed as body parts and burning houses and screaming children filled the screen, "they would demand an end to it. Which is why this will never air on American television." But other countries don't have our nanny media. Europeans and Arabs see the horror wreaked in our name on their airwaves, assume that we see the same imagery and hate us for not giving a damn. America's self-censors make anti-Americanism worse.
Ugly truths come out one way or the other. While the Muslim world was raging over the Danish Mohammed cartoons, Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles received a chilling letter from the Joints Chief of Staff in reaction to his single-panel rendition of a quadriplegic veteran; if not for the nanny media's slavish refusal to run photos of the real thing, would that abstract image have shocked anyone? While we're at it, using prose to describe graphic images--as editors and anchormen are doing about the Mohammed imagery--makes as much sense as talking about the Rodney King police brutality video. "[Describing the cartoons without showing them] seems a reasonable choice," editorialized The New York Times, a paper whose readers' right to know apparently includes classified surveillance programs--but not cartoons.
Toles "crossed the line" from appropriate commentary into outright tastelessness, complained the Joint Chiefs. Similarly, many Muslims say the 12 Danish cartoonists "crossed the line" when they indulged in blasphemy of one of the world's major religions. U.S. State Department spokesman and honorary mullah Sean McCormack helpfully tells us where The Line is drawn: "Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images," he said. But who can distinguish "anti-Muslim images" from "acceptable" satire? Taste is subjective. Right-wing Time columnist Andrew Sullivan, who has repeatedly called for censoring my work because it's critical of Bush, calls the Danish cartoons "not arbitrarily offensive" and thus acceptable free speech. Lefties, on the other hand, rallied to get Rush Limbaugh fired from his gig as a football commentator.
Hypocrisy abounds: Everyone supports the free speech they agree with.
Which is why, in a nation with a truly free media, there is no line. To hell with the nanny media. Free speech is like a Ferrari: What good is it if you don't use it or if you barely use it, only driving it in town, in stop-and-go traffic? It's useless until you can head out to the Arizona desert and push it past 150 mph. Short of libel, slander and impersonation, anything goes--that is, if you believe in the First Amendment.
What if millions of people take offense? What if some of them turn violent, even murderous? So what? No one can make you angry. You decide whether or not to become angry. If journalistic gatekeepers worry about the mere possibility of prompting outrage, they'll validate mob rule and undermine our right to a free press, one that covers the controversial along with the bland.
While deciding what goes into the paper and the evening news, good journalists ought to be guided by only one consideration: Is it news? If the answer is yes, send it out. Even if it's tasteless as all f---.
Postscript: A European Muslim Web site has posted a cartoon depicting Anne Frank in bed with Adolf Hitler. "If it is the time to break taboos and cross all the red lines," the site explains, "we certainly do not want to fall behind." It's an idiotic cartoon. Breaking taboos, on the other hand, is something our nanny media ought to try.