In America, people have the right to lampoon religion, practically unreservedly. They have the right to say or write offensive things, engage in speech that exceeds the bounds of good taste, criticize the government, offend other people’s sensibilities ... the list of what is permitted is far longer than what isn’t.
And that is an essential brick in the foundation of our democratic system. Without the right to free speech, the nation we revere could not function.
And those who want to participate in our democratic society must learn to tolerate a wide range of free speech, even when it offends them, even when they might consider it blasphemous.
But just because we, as Americans, have that right doesn’t mean we have to exercise it even when it is certain to outrage many people, likely to incite a violent reaction and potentially to endanger people’s lives.
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Deliberate provocation was the purpose of the convention in Garland, Texas, Sunday, where contestants were invited to submit caricatures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad with the chance of winning a $10,000 pot. While the event was billed as a pro-free-speech rally, one of the organizers of the event, Pamela Geller, runs the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a New-York based group that also uses the name Stop Islamization of America.
Geller helped lead the effort to bar a mosque from locating near the site of the former World Trade Center destroyed on 9-11. She also has advocated banning Islam in the U.S. and deporting Muslims. And she has insinuated that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the early 20th-century Turkish leader, acted correctly in abolishing Islam, demolishing mosques and killing Muslims.
In short, she is more than just a critic of Islam, she is a rabid Islamophobic.
As details of the shooting have emerged, we have learned that both of the shooters who drove to the scene of the event with the apparent intent of killing participants were Muslims. One of them, Elton Simpson, 30, an American convert to Islam, was convicted in 2011 of lying to FBI agents about his plans to travel to Somalia to engage “in violent jihad.” He was sentenced to three years’ probation, placed on the no-fly list and had remained under FBI scrutiny.
Thankfully, the two men were not able to carry out their plan in Garland. They both were shot to death by a local police officer who had been part of the heavy security contingent at the event.
But the outcome could have been different, similar to the recent attacks on the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in which several of the magazine’s cartoonists and staffers were killed by Muslim intruders. The Garland event could have been a bloodbath.
While Americans shouldn’t allow themselves to be cowed into silence by threats from Muslim extremists, good judgment also should come into play. Intentionally goading the extremists – poking the hornet’s nest – when it is likely to end in violence achieves nothing useful.
In this case, it probably was a win for the extremists. In the wake of the shooting, members of the Islamic State, the terrorist organization operating in Iraq and Syria, have claimed credit for the attack and have called on other U.S. Muslims to avenge the two dead shooters.
Islamic State undoubtedly will use this incident to portray all Americans as anti-Muslim and to recruit new converts. And its chances of succeeding at least on some scale probably are good.
Geller is free to express her extreme views and organize provocative events such as the one in Garland. Unfortunately, others are likely to pay the price one way or another for her recklessness.
While we, as Americans, are guaranteed the right to free speech, we should use good judgment about exercising that right.