Yesterday, I wrote a piece about the three laws that govern human behavior — the laws of man, the laws of morality, and the laws of the jungle. Barely an hour after it was published, one commenter challenged me to apply those laws to the Cartoon Intifadah. Now, the fine commenters did an excellent job of answering “diversity day,” but I just have to have my own say and am taking the opportunity to pull together their thoughts, my own ideas, and put it all in one (hopefully) coherent whole.
To begin with, let’s sum up the basic facts: a single Danish newspaper, as an exploration of the dangers of self-censorship, commissioned several cartoonists to depict Mohammed — the founder of Islam — in whatever way they chose. The newspaper chose twelve of them and published them. Months later, riots and protests broke out around the world, inflamed by those twelve and three other cartoons of unknown origin but distributed by a group of Danish Muslims who were spreading the word about the publication. These riots led to churches and embassies being burned, people being killed, boycotts announced by Islamic nations against Denmark, and a rift between two factions of the West, with some saying “these folks are nuts, we gotta deal with them” and others saying “these folks are nuts, we shouldn’t provoke them.”
So, how does my “three laws” theory fit this case?
First law: the laws of man. No problem. The cartoons might have violated the laws of some Islamic nations, but not the laws of Denmark, where they were first published. End of discussion.
Second law: the laws of morality. Questionable, as they were definitely aimed at violating a cultural taboo. This becomes a question of whether the violator was bound to respect the taboo, and whether the taboo is justified. It also brings up the deeper question — by what right does any group have to demand that non-adherents abide by their customs? Specifically, by what right to Muslims have to demand that non-Muslims in non-Muslim nations honor their laws? As I said, it’s debatable — but I firmly come down on the side that it was not a violation of moral law.
Now for the tricky one: the unwritten law. To what degree did the publication of the cartoons contribute to the following violence, and was it a worthwhile risk?
diversity day falls victim to the same leap of illogic that befell the whole protest movement. They are attributing responsibility for the actions of a single newspaper with the whole nation of Denmark — and in some cases, the whole West. The vast majority of the backlash has been aimed not at the newspaper or the cartoonists, but on the Danish government or Danish companies that had absolutely nothing to do with the publication. In essence, it has become a “hostage situation,” where innocent, non-involved parties are being punished for the actions of others.
And the Danish government really has no valid response. Do they violate their own laws and principles and punish the newspaper for its entirely legal action? What kind of precedent does that set? For two, it establishes that the government can and will exert control over the press, pretty much ending the whole notion of a free press. For another, it says that the government can and will be coerced into trashing its own principles and sacrificing its sovereignty through threats of violence — something that historically has been anathema to the Danes, as exemplified by their resistance to the Nazi occupation during World War II.
Again, though, that’s all diversionary. The initial action taken here was taken by the Danish newspaper, and therefore the question falls on them: should they have foreseen the consequences of their actions, and should they have acted differently?
Actually, that’s two questions, so I’ll answer them both. First, should they have foreseen the consequences? I’d have to say no. The initial response was rough, but manageable. In fact, it blew over within a few weeks. It wasn’t untilt the entirely-unforeseeable event of a delegation of Danish Muslims started circulating fake cartoons — deliberately intended to inflame the masses — and falsely attributing them to the newspaper that set off the truly large-scale protests.
Second, should they have acted differently? I say not. The whole point of the publication was to show that Islamic law and custom do NOT hold sway over Western law and custom in the West, that threats of violence will not dissuade us from abandoning our most cherished principles and freedoms.
And if that freedom offends some, that’s just too goddamned bad.