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September 14, 2010

Richard Cohen: I Stand With Pastor Jones

Yes, there's some obligatory Palin and Gingrich bashing but credit where credit it due, a WaPo columnist reminds his liberal readers that the First Amendment isn't just a good idea, it's who we are.

Jones is neither a great man nor the leader of a great cause. But what he wanted to do was both permissible under our system and, in a sense, valued. He was attempting to make a statement. It was chaotic and bigoted, but it was a political statement nonetheless, and he had every right to make it. Still, President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Afghanistan War commander Gen. David Petraeus urged him to stand down -- the lives of American soldiers were at stake. Jones stood down.

This was not the first time the threat of violence in the Islamic world has had a chastening effect here -- nor will it be the last. I have yet to see the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published originally in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The one drawn by Kurt Westergaard and considered particularly objectionable generated riots and, ultimately, an attack on Westergaard himself. The violence, actual or threatened, intimidated the Western media.

Westergaard survived the attack, a horrific home invasion, summoning the police from his panic room. As the novelist Salman Rushdie once did, he lives under police protection. Rushdie, of course, had his life threatened for his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses," which was characterized as insulting to Islam. As with Westergaard, Rushdie was condemned both by certain Muslims and by certain non-Muslims. More frequently, the fatwa was greeted by a studied indifference -- a pox on both their houses, that of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who ordered Rushdie's death and the insensitive Rushdie who did not understand that post-colonial peoples are always right.

Into this maelstrom of conflicting values has stepped German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Just this month she honored Westergaard with a media prize. She did so even though Germany has about 4,600 troops in Afghanistan, the third-largest NATO contingent. "The secret to freedom is courage," she said at the awards ceremony, citing the role a free press had played in freeing her native East Germany. It turns out that some values are more valuable than others.

I still think Obama was wrong to go after Jones in a public way. He and his administration should be explaining to peaceful (unless they aren't) Muslims around the world that this is what America is all about. We hash these things out amongst ourselves and the government only gets involved to keep the participants safe. If they don't like it, that's their business but we aren't changing who we are and the US Government is not in the business of enforcing Islamic (or any religion's) blasphemy laws.

You may think I'm giving Cohen too much credit for stating the obvious but it's important to note that not everyone is on board with this basic notion of freedom. Justice Breyer might actually be willing to enforce religious limitation on speech.

Breyer is working really hard to be one of the worst Justices ever (read his book Active Liberty and you'll see how hard he works at it). The only thing that keeps him from being at the top of that list is he's never really written anything of consequence. He's got no Roe or Lawrence or Hamdan to his name.

I have qualms about the idea that the safety of the troops is a consideration in regulating speech. Mostly because I don't think terrorists need excuses or provocations to kill American servicemen and women, it's what they do.

Still, that's a somewhat minor quibble considering it's probably the first time most of Cohen's readers will have heard about the attack on Westergaard, let alone a direct attack on the cowardice of the west's reaction to the Islamic world's response to the cartoons.

Cohen, also gets credit for 'connecting the dots' between the speech he cites and the thing they all have in common...Islam*. Add all of that to a full throated defense of speech and that's a good day's work for your average WaPo columnist not named Will, Krauthammer or Thiessen.


*I corrected that sentence because Cohen did cite the common thread "the Islamic world". My apologies for the mistake.


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posted by DrewM. at 12:05 PM

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