After the Charlie Hebdo attack in January, some people blamed the victims: the magazine’s artists and editors as well as France itself. By drawing the prophet Mohammed, these critics suggested, the magazine incited violence. France is racist, others charged. It doesn’t integrate its Muslims well or help poor people find jobs. It builds poorly designed low-income houses. And French people are rude. But blaming anyone but terrorists for terrorism is a dangerous game. To see why, look at the rhetoric surrounding the terrorist attack in Garland, Texas, earlier this week.
The assault on the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest, a privately sponsored event, could have been another Charlie Hebdo. The only reason jihadists Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi wounded one person instead of killing 11—or more—was that a cop shot them dead. You don’t hear too many Americans saying that the reason Simpson and Soofi attacked the exhibit was America’s failure to find them jobs or a place to live. That line of thinking on home turf would be almost too ridiculous—though many supposedly reasonable Americans said or implied those things about the French attacks. But you do hear far too many people—including the New York Times editorial board—saying, in effect: “Wasn’t it irresponsible for Pamela Geller, whose anti-Muslim group organized the Muhammad exhibit, to try such a thing?”
We all know by now that many Muslims object to people drawing the prophet—and that a small minority of Muslims objects enough to kill over it. Therefore, the thinking goes, anyone who exhibits drawings of the prophet is asking for it. That’s how New York Daily News columnist Linda Stasi sees it. “We have freedom of speech,” she wrote, “but we also have freedom of religion. Suppose there was a contest to draw God in defiance of Jewish laws. Would that be free speech or hate speech? What about cartoons of Jesus with his genitals up in the air?” Blaming Geller for the attack, Stasi imagined what Geller must be thinking: “Damn the cost in innocent lives.”
The Los Angeles Times’s Christopher Knight saw it the same way. Judging that Geller’s exhibit “led to [the] fatal shooting” of the terrorists, he wrote, “there is no one to root for on either side.” Even Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly blamed Geller. “It’s always cause and effect . . . . This is what happens when you light the fuse, you get violence,” he said. And the Daily Kos’s Karen Hedwig Backman wondered, “How many [SWAT] officers did Pamela Geller hire for her little shindig,” leading to the deaths of the two armed terrorists? Indeed, Texas local law enforcement provided armed personnel, for good reason.
This is what passes for rational debate when, in fact, there should be no debate here. Geller has the right to free speech. She has the right to put on an exhibit showcasing Muhammad drawings. Likewise, we all have the right to attend it, to boycott it, to ignore it, or to march around it with protest signs. To answer Stasi’s question: drawing a Jewish God or drawing Jesus’s genitals is also free speech, much as it might offend many of us. The world is complicated, but this issue isn’t. The right to free speech means, too, that Mayor Bill de Blasio as well as most anti-cop demonstrators don’t have “blood on [their] hands” when a terrorist or a criminal shoots a cop. Unless they are directly inciting violence—telling someone to go out and shoot a cop or a cartoonist—Americans can say what they like.
Speech is speech, and shooting people is shooting people. Everyone who lives in a Western society should understand the distinction.