RABBLE, RABBLE: Right to free speech doesn’t mean say anything

Mike Bucaria

Journalists typically fear deadlines, editors and confrontational readers. However, Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris has a new concern to add — Islamic extremists. This is such a concern that the Seattle Weekly, the paper which Norris worked for, reported that she has been urged by the FBI to “go ghost.” As part of this, she will relocate, change her name and create a new identity. And for what?

Muslim cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki has labeled Norris a “prime target” for her “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.” Said Al-Awlaki: “A soul that is so debased, as to enjoy the ridicule of the Messenger of Allah…does not deserve life.” Failing to appreciate the satire intended behind her idea, Al-Awlaki announced his call to arms in Al Qaeda’s publication Inspire.

Muslims believe that disrespectful depictions of Mohammed are blasphemous, and extremists like Al-Awlaki do not take such affronts lightly. CNN reported that Al-Awlaki wrote in his article: “This campaign is not a practice of freedom of speech but is a nationwide mass movement of Americans” who are “going out of their way to offend Muslims worldwide.”

Norris originally voiced her idea when writers for the show “South Park” were threatened for depicting Mohammed wearing a bear suit. The backlash against these writers resulted in a censored episode of “South Park” and Norris declaring her sympathy for the writers. In a first amendment defense of these writers and others like them, Norris jokingly announced “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.”

However, this idea was much more popular than Norris could have intended, leading to massive Internet exposure and many followers. This issue begs the question: Why did this ever seem like a good idea?

This threat is not unique to Norris. CNN reported that she is not the only person whom Al-Awlaki has targeted. In fact, he made similar statements about eight other cartoonists, journalists and writers from Britain, Sweden and Holland. Also, recall Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist whose depictions of Mohammed led to violent protests and attacks against Dutch embassies throughout the Middle East.

This is not a matter of freedom of speech in the usual sense, for no government is trying to silence Norris. This case will not be adopted by the ACLU, nor will any court, domestic or international, ever investigate the situation. The fact that those seeking to censor are guided by extreme views, not laws, transforms this issue from one of expression to one of safety.

That being said, entertain the other side. Dealing with extremists demands a certain amount of sensitivity. Sensitivity should not be exercised to the extent that one compromises his beliefs, but at least an iota of sensitivity is necessary, if only for self-preservation. The question is not if it is right for a cartoonist to receive death threats for published work; the more pertinent question is if or when she will.

This is not the first time that the media has been targeted by terrorists, nor will it be the last. However present the threat of violence against the media, it must not lead to backlash against Islam. The religion itself is not to blame — just those with extreme perspectives and the ability to provoke the masses.

Voltaire once said, “I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.” How would Voltaire feel about Molly Norris? What about Terry Jones? 

Pastor Terry Jones shocked the nation when he called for and then canceled “Burn a Koran Day.” After he announced the event in June, people everywhere opposed the act of intolerance, ranging from his local fire department to the president to the Vatican. Although the event did not take place, the same question remains — how did this ever seem like a good idea?

Although neither Norris nor Jones acted with prudence, they were still within their rights. However, the right to act does not imply obligation to exercise this right. These incendiary statements showed such a lack of foresight that the only possible defense seems to be the rather adolescent excuse, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Yes, these are highly emotional situations, and the right to express an opinion is guaranteed by the Constitution. However, provocative claims and accusations only make matters worse. Act in a helpful way — open your eyes. 

Instead of burning a book, open a newspaper. Instead of drawing an outrageous cartoon, write a sensible article. Reason necessitates that people learn from these mistakes and do not threaten themselves and others. So, the next time you have an idea, think it through before announcing it on national TV.

Mike Bucaria is a freshman undeclared major from Rockville Centre, N.Y. He can be reached at [email protected].