Pamela Geller, president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, is a nasty-hearted Islamophobe. But should she be blamed for the recent armed attack on her cartoon exhibit in Garland, Texas, in which two gunmen were killed and a police officer was wounded? Writing for Bloomberg View, Harvard law professor Noah Feldman opined that she may be “morally culpable,” on the theory that she probably hoped to “provoke violence.” Feldman has erred badly here.
Although Feldman begins by condemning the terrorists, he quickly cautions his readers not to be “distracted” by either the crime or the First Amendment; the real question, he argues, is whether Geller was “morally right or wrong” to stage an event featuring offensive caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. But it's Feldman who's been distracted, by Geller's long history of repulsive anti-Islam activism (for example, her despicable campaign to prohibit the so-called “ground zero mosque”). Blaming her, even partially and conditionally, for an act of terror stretches moral reasoning beyond the breaking point.
Feldman’s premise is that the “provokers in Texas,” as he calls them, “almost certainly… wanted to get a reaction from Muslims.” Thus, Geller could be held “morally responsible for the foreseeable consequences of her provocation,” by which he means the armed attack. The implication here is staggering. In the wake of threats of murder for the exercise of free expression—and lately, they have been much more than threats—Feldman claims that the correct moral response is to shut up. In this contest, the bullies always win, so long as their violent reaction is sufficiently predictable—which, as Feldman does not acknowledge, gives the bullies a strong incentive to strike early and often (thus making their threats more credible).
There comes a point, however, when defiance is the only feasible response to censorship. In a better world, we would all respect the religious sensitivities of others, and no one would have cause for offense. Alas, we live in a world where atheist bloggers are hacked to death in the streets of Bangladesh, and Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris has been forced into hiding for four years after being placed on an Al Qaeda hit list. Self-silencing—at the point of a machete—is not the answer to this problem.
Applied in other circumstances, Feldman’s metric leads to untenable results. Was John Lewis responsible for the foreseeable consequences of the Selma to Montgomery march? Was Ayaan Hirsi Ali responsible for the murder of her filmmaking colleague Theo von Gogh? Was Salman Rushdie responsible for the murder of his Japanese translator? Indeed, were the cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo office responsible for the related massacre at Hyper Cacher supermarket? Of course not. All of those people—some of whose aims were more noble than others'—defied the threat of violence at great personal cost. John Lewis is a civil-rights hero and Salman Rushdie a gifted novelist, while Pamela Geller is a religious bigot—but so what? The application of moral principles to extremist violence should not depend upon the acceptability of the victim's views.
Feldman attempts to draw a fine line between risking violence (which is apparently okay) and seeking it (which is morally blameworthy). He asserts that Geller falls into the latter category because “she paid for an armed security guard outside the event, suggesting she considered violence at least possible” and because “cartoons perceived as insulting the prophet have been met with violence” in the past. By that measure, we would also have to blame the victims at Charlie Hebdo, as well as those who were murdered the following month at a “blasphemy debate” in Copenhagen. After all, they too had armed guards.
I stand second to no one in my contempt for Pamela Geller and everything she represents. Her derision of Islam and Muslims is morally wrong, but that does not make her morally responsible for the attack in Texas. And it is absurd to claim, as does a New York Times editorial, that her two-hour cartoon display at a suburban conference center stood any chance of “inflicting deliberate anguish on millions of devout Muslims.” Please, let’s not grant her more power than she possesses.
It is a bedrock principle of pluralist democracy that followers of one religion do not get to veto the expression of non-believers, even when it causes offense. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” The same goes for insulting God, he might have added. Robert Mapplethorpe and Andre Serrano understood that, and so did Lenny Bruce. The defense of free expression should become stronger in the face of violent threats, not weaker.
It is to the shame of American liberalism that the assertion of such an essential ideal has defaulted to reactionary hatemongers such as Pamela Geller.