Texas Shooting, Not Amsterdam

“What happened?” That was the gist of a couple of e-mailed enquiries I received in the wake of my previous blogpost about the visit of the famed Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard to Amsterdam for a “Free Speech” conference last Saturday.

(One of the enquirers added that I would have been much more precise, instead of headlining the piece “Charlie Hebdo in Amsterdam?”, to have referred instead to the shootings in Copenhagen last February, which had to do in a much more-analogous way with Westergaard’s Amsterdam event. That’s quite right: but where’s the corresponding phrase to “Charlie Hebdo” to invoke that incident to the reader’s mind in a short headline? Those Danes sometimes are so deficient in that essential modern PR skill of thinking up snappy descriptions, you know, the kind that are instantly hash-taggable!)

Nothing happened, of course. Security at De Balie was raised to truly ridiculous levels, the likes of which I am sure that place had never seen before. Take a look at this great photo:

Deeper in that scene and to the right you have the Leidseplein, Amsterdam’s premier (but by no means only) party-square. Rigorous on-the-spot reporting by yours truly confirmed there was not a whit less of the sort of festive atmosphere there that you’d expect on a balmy May Saturday evening, despite that weird police presence just on the other side of the tram-stop.

There was another much-closer analogue than “Charlie Hebdo” to that Free Speech conference in Amsterdam, but that occurred subsequently. It was of course that Free Speech (or, indeed, “Provocatively Mock Mohammed”) conference in Garland, TX, a suburb of Dallas, that was actually the target of an armed attack. While Westergaard in Amsterdam received hardly any coverage outside the Netherlands – logically, for nothing really happened – I am sure you are already aware of that Texas attack via your own particular favorite news-source. The coverage I liked, however, was this:

Amen, brother! Just imagine: It was the two attackers who had the AK-47 assault rifles –  this being Texas, there was no mystery or surprise that they had managed to get ahold of such – yet they were both killed by security wielding only pistols, having only managed to shoot one guy in the leg! In fact:

An officer who normally works on traffic was there as part of a heavy security detail for the event, and this officer shot and killed both gunmen using his duty pistol, said Joe Harn, a spokesman for the Garland police.

What a pair of losers! The gang who couldn’t shoot straight! Pitiful, particularly by Texas standards. Imagine: it’s your one chance at the big-time, the attack that will define your life (either by ending it, as occurred, or by getting you locked for life so that there can be no second act) – yet you mess it up this badly, at the hands of a traffic cop! Strangely, this Washington Post piece concentrates almost exclusively on how one of these gunmen, one Elton Simpson, had already been watched by the FBI for years, as if that were his big mistake! Well, all that surveillance apparently did not keep him from driving up outside the Garland convention center with his friend and their automatic weapons, did it?

Those Kouachi brothers who shot up Charlie Hebdo – good ol’ boys Chérif and Saïd – also faced armed opposition (although, again, equipped only with pistols), including the bodyguard of Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief who was right there on watch at the scene, but acquitted themselves with their weapons rather “better,” shall we say, at least until they were eventually trapped at that warehouse out by Charles DeGaulle airport. But then they had already been to Syria to fight for ISIL; our Elton had tried to go, but failed, which was one reason the FBI had its eye (loosely) on him. He just couldn’t wait until he had been sufficiently trained to do a proper job of martyrdom!

And wouldn’t you know, it turned out that the Netherland’s favorite anti-Muslim firebrand, the politician Geert Wilders, had passed up the chance to attend the Amsterdam event in favor of flying all the way to Texas to be at that same Garland conference. Actually, it’s clear that he never would have been invited to that “Festival of the Free Word” at Amsterdam’s De Balie in the first place, even had he made himself available. From what I gather, much was made there of the principle that freedom of expression also means defending expression that you find distasteful and don’t like, and quite rightly. Nevertheless, you can be sure that those responsible at De Balie were only willing to go so far as to invite representatives for viewpoints condemned by some yet still fashionable in many quarters to uphold – Kurt Westergaard and his cartoons, for example – and certainly not any that they themselves actually do not like. Hey – it’s their conference, there’s no requirement for consistency or for that sort of even-handedness! (Too bad, though: such an appearance by Wilders would truly have been interesting in the context, although it would also have necessitated heightened security, as usual – but that was already taken care of, in spades!)

So Wilders was in Texas instead, to speak at that “Draw Mohammed” conference put on by noted American anti-Islamic firebrand Pamela Geller. Both Wilders and Geller belong to an absurd, paranoid, right-wing school of thought that sees Islamic terrorists under every bush and is sure that sharia law is ready to be imposed in their respective political jurisdictions. It’s no surprise they have seized the leadership when it comes to insisting that Western traditions of free expression require the untrammeled freedom to ridicule and satire anything, no matter who might be offended or might want to come rushing with guns to try to do something about it.

In a way, that is too bad – not the principle of the unlimited right to free expression, not by any means, but that ridiculous figures like those two have managed to come to the forefront in its defense. Nonetheless, it is a principle that needs defending: Christianity, and certainly Islam and Muhammed are fair play for any sort of ridicule or “blasphemy” in Western polities which operate in Judeo-Christian cultures, and it is time that all who espouse Islam realize that and make their own peace with it. Retreating from this principle in any way – and yes, it has been retreated from, ironically precisely in France following the Charlie Hebdo shootings, I’ve written about this before – just because people can be counted upon to react in crazed ways with automatic weapons, is unacceptable. It’s not only unacceptable to fanatic right-wing politicians, it’s unacceptable to the many of us who know and remember what our societies are supposed to stand for.

Enough With the Mohammed Cartoons, goes out the cry – but no, not enough! If adherents to the Muslim faith truly want to see satirical cartoons of Mohammed die out – and, truly, there is no alternate inherent motivation by artists to produce them – then they should aim for a world which knows that it could, if it wanted to, stage a conference about such cartoons without having to take any sort of extraordinary security measures. As we have seen, that is hardly the case now, so that publishing such cartoons and defending those who draw and who publish them has truly become the touchstone of a principle which allows no sort of retreat. Surely there will be more such “provocations,” and rightly so – until there ever comes a day when that principle is accepted by all.

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