Extremists’ threats justify publishing the cartoons

"If a man starts to run, there’s nothing to do but keep running.” – Louis L’Amour

It is not pleasant to be forced to choose between seeming rude and seeming cowardly. I resent being put in this position. But in sorrow and in anger I have changed my mind about those Danish cartoons. Thanks to Muslim radicals, republishing them is now the only way to show we will not be intimidated.

I wish it were not. I write, obviously, for the Ottawa Citizen, which has not reprinted them because, as editor-in-chief Scott Anderson explained on Tuesday, “This really has very little to do with freedom of the press. Newspapers can publish any number of things that would upset any number of groups, but that isn’t reason enough to do it. There has to be some greater public good, and I really don’t see how publishing these cartoons at this time achieves any greater good.” Though I had no role in that decision, it is precisely the advice I would have given last September about publication, and as recently as last week about republication. But I also write for Western Standard magazine, which just reprinted them. And though I had no role in that decision either, it would be cowardly not to say I now think they were right and explain why.

Quite simply, another week of global riots and threats means it has ceased to be an issue of the legal right to free speech and become one of raw intimidation. We are being clearly told if we print these things we will be lynched.

Scott Anderson is not quite right that freedom of the press is not at stake. Several Canadian Islamic leaders have threatened to seek hate-speech charges against Western Standard while the European Union’s foreign policy chief supports a United Nations convention banning ridiculing religion. Most Canadian editors seem confident that their legal rights remain secure. But I wish someone with deep pockets would publish the cartoons just to make sure. And to show they care.

Normally here I would restate the case for free speech, most particularly the “Dracula effect” that sunlight destroys evil. It should be legal to obtain Adolf Hitler’s utterly hateful book Mein Kampf precisely because here is the very face of evil: Memorize its features. And Muslims who call hate-speech laws proof of Western hypocrisy on free speech are, to our shame, partly right. But I have always opposed such laws.

We should call it disgraceful to governors and governed alike for the state to suggest citizens cannot be trusted even to hear bad arguments. Instead our prime minister capped off a series of grovelling official statements by spontaneously declaring that he “regrets” publication of the cartoons. Did the government regret the press quoting Osama bin Laden’s threats or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial? Did journalists ask? Of course not. So why is this different?

A CBC interviewer interrogating Western Standard publisher Ezra Levant argued that the public broadcaster had no legitimate news reason to publish the cartoons because they were readily available elsewhere. What craven nonsense. It concedes that for the public to understand the controversy someone must publish the cartoons. Just not us. Since when do media outlets not cover newsworthy items because their rivals are already on the story? Come out from under the bed and explain.

This knocking of knees renders political philosophy irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what else I want to say. It only matters whether I can say it without being stabbed, beheaded or blown up.

For Scott Anderson is right that we are not dealing primarily with press freedom. We are dealing with explicit threats of violence. Even newspaper stories saying protests in Canada have been peaceful have generally added that no major Canadian media outlet has published the cartoons. So if they are published will violence result that, while regrettable, is predictable and thus our fault? Nice freedom of speech you have there. Pity if something were to … happen to it.

I know the people who run the Citizen well enough to know fear is not their motive. But it is not important what I think, or what is true. We are being watched closely by people who are trying to scare us, and they know we know it. We must not seem to flinch.

If there were some way to demonstrate that I despise such threats without publishing the cartoons, I would. I have no desire to offend Muslims. But their radical co-religionists leave me no choice. David Rennie in the Daily Telegraph penned an elegant blog entry about how he could not decide whether publishing them was desirable or not because the world is complex and so is he, but we aren’t writing Hamlet here. We’re writing newspapers. Editors publish or don’t. I say do.

To Muslims offended by this sentiment my message is equally straightforward: You must take back your religion from those who threaten and commit violence in your name. Don’t live through history thinking it’s just current events. There comes a point where silence is complicity and you are there.

So are journalists. Silence in the face of intimidation is complicity, and bluster is pitiful. So I say publish. The decision is painful, but not hard.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson