Long-time readers of this blog will appreciate that I attempt to discuss issues in a fairly cool and reasoned way. Usually, I have some success. Even when I do denounce people with whom I have disagreements, it's usually good-natured and with a touch of humour. Not always, perhaps, but usually. Sometimes, however, more is needed. For example, here is a piece for which I'll make an exception, something truly worthy of disgust and denunciation. It's published in Comment is Free, The Guardian's online opinion forum, and written by one Nancy Graham Holm. Remember that name.
Holm is discussing the attempted murder of Kurt Westergaard, one of the Danish cartoonists who drew their impressions of Muhammad for Jyllands-Posten ... back in 2005. Now, you can have a range of views about whether the cartoons were fair, whether the motivations for publishing them were tinged by elements of racism or xenophobia, and so on. There is a great deal to be said about the circumstances that led to their publication ... and about the subsequent mayhem (which did not arise spontaneously and was actually stirred up much later, in a deliberate campaign that used grossly misleading material). I'm going to leave all that to one side except to note that the material was published in a context; it wasn't just arbitrary.
Forget about that. What I find shocking about the article by Nancy Graham Holm is the way that it tends to blame the victim of a terrifying murder attempt, carried out in front of the elderly victim's young granddaughter.
Westergaard was forced to retreat to an armoured panic room, leaving the poor girl behind, while his attacker attempted to break through with one his weapons - an axe. Westergaard had been advised that such murderers concentrate on their targets and seldom attack family members, and to run for the safe room in such circumstances. Fine, but imagine the emotions he must have had, the temptation to try to fight to protect his granddaughter. Somehow, for Nancy Graham Holm, all this is Westergaard's fault for not apologising for the humiliation that he supposedly inflicted on Muslims with his cartoon. There are more fanatics out there, Holm warns, and it appears that this, too, is somehow the fault of Westergaard, the other cartoonists, their editor, and the Danish people for their characteristically suspicious attitude towards religion.
What utter nonsense! First, people in Western democracies (or, arguably, anywhere else) should have every right to be suspicious of religion, or of a particular religion, and the right to express their suspicion in whatever form they find most natural - including by way of satire or mockery. They should then have the right to stick to their guns and refuse to apologise, even if somebody takes offence. We can argue about whether or not a particular expression of views - once interpreted "correctly" - was wise or justified, or whether it was tainted in some way, but people do, or certainly should, have the right to express what they think and feel. It is not reasonable to demand that they give insincere apologies if someone else responds with violent acts. Even a wildly implausible view, tainted by suspect motivations, and expressed in a highly provocative way, does not provide any excuse for acts of murder.
Even if something you've said is quite unreasonable, that is not justification for acts of violence against you or others, and the onus is not on you to apologise in an attempt to forestall attempts on your life. Whether you've been unreasonable or not, the onus is on others to reply with better speech, or simply leave you alone, and to refrain from using violence to make their point. Not even the most unreasonable speech justifies a violent response, particularly when the response is in cold blood years later - not spur-of-the-moment rage from an immediate insult delivered in your face. Any suggestion that there is some sort of proportionality between even the most unreasonable speech and an attempted axe murder is morally abhorrent.
Furthermore, we must all be very reluctant to back down in the face of actual or threatened violence, since this can create a situation that encourages further violence - it is a way of making sure that violence, or even the prospect of it, is an effective means of suppressing unwanted speech. Well, effective at least on that one occasion. But if it works once, why not use it again? And again?
In writing the paragraphs directly above, I'm not at all conceding that Westergaard's famous cartoon of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban actually was unreasonable (because of unfairness, or racism, or xenophobia, or whatever other reason). But even if it was, so what? There is still no onus on Westergaard to give an insincere apology in an attempt to avoid murderous violence against himself. It's naive to assume that such a course of action would have the best long-term consequences. Why would it not be seen as a victory? Why would it not inspire attempts to gain more such victories?
Holm's entire article is incredible. She would do better to stand up for the right of Danes such as Westergaard to be suspicious of religion - and to express it openly if it's what they feel. What she has written is worth denouncing - soberly, deliberately, and in all seriousness this time. Let the name of Nancy Graham Holm find its place in every hall of ignominy and shame, indelibly incribed there for posterity.