The New York Post headline read “Art Attack” over a detailed report about the deadly assault—for the gunmen at least—at a convention center in Garland, Tex. The two men had attempted to storm an exhibit put together by the professional provocateur Pamela Geller through her American Freedom Defense Initiative. I haven’t seen any of the depictions of Muhammad that comprised the “Draw the Prophet” exhibit, but I am willing to speculate that there was more agitation than art hanging from its walls.
This unpleasant escapade ended with the deaths of only the attackers—apparently homegrown Islamic terror-wannabes—and only one security guard was wounded. But much like other attempts to ridicule hard cultural positions in the Islamic world, the intended mockery of “Draw the Prophet” put uninvolved people at risk and ended in a violent display that organizers on some level must have wished to provoke. In similar spectacles in the past, the outcome has been far more deadly, both for Islamic protesters and scores of innocent bystanders or blameless members of minority communities, typically Christians living within predominately Muslim societies. Many have suffered the wrath of mobs inflamed by the actions of others: Quran-burning in the United States, low-fi video auteurs, even unfortunately one pope (Benedict XVI), whose indelicate reference at the University of Regensburg in Germany in 2006 became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
After years of renewed tension between Islamic societies and the West, it has become clear that there are many individuals within Islamic societies who are willing to turn to violence in response to incitements (defended as free speech) that most people in the West would deem trivial. There is little need to retest that particular sociological hypothesis. So why do some in the West persist? Asked that question, folks like Geller will indignantly suggest that this is like challenging the victim of a sexual assault for wearing a short skirt. (I kid you not; check your twitter feed.) Or they will ignore the intent of the query and merely assert an inalienable and apparently limitless right to free speech guaranteed by the Constitution, with the insinuation that they are doing something wonderfully heroic—and a great service to the rest of civilized society—by insulting Islamic sensibilities. Thanks?
The First Amendment prevents government from curtailing free speech. It does not prevent members of civil society from expressing displeasure with and seeking to restrain speech that they deem unwholesome or an unnecessary threat to communal harmony. In some societies where intercommunal tensions between different religions or within sects of the same religion are easily aroused, many governments indeed resort to laws aimed at preserving communal peace by outlawing specific kinds of speech, especially speech denigrating other faith traditions. Why? Because many people hold specific things to be sacred, and attacking sacred things can trigger responses that are emotional, frankly, not rational and can lead to acts that are not rational—like storming an art exposition that is surrounded by armed guards and local police who have prepared for precisely that possibility.
Geller and her ilk will insist that they are patriots seeking to exercise fully rights guaranteed by the Constitution. But no society issues rights carte blanche, they come with some obligation for reasonable, responsible use (perhaps they should come with written disclaimers), especially when the exercise of said rights can put others, either here or abroad, in harm’s way.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has strained unhappily to balance security and liberty with individual privacy. Islamic communities living in a free society must adapt to the occasional personal outrage that someone else’s free expression may inspire. Doing so, they can become exemplars of the same in the Islamic world, where religious and civic liberties struggle against religious authoritarianism that can often take a brutal turn. But pointless exercises in provocation like the exposition in Garland deserve to be deplored. They serve only to inflame the egos and media profiles of the provocateurs and the indignation, to the point of violence, of the targeted community. For the rest of us they unleash a host of unpleasant outcomes. Among them are calls to government authority in the name of public safety to step in and restrain free expression or to dig even deeper holes in the privacy rights already at risk in the age of terror we inhabit.