Thursday, January 07, 2010

That Holm woman

Nancy Graham Holm wrote an article in the Guardian charging that Kurt Westergaard was himself responsible for an attempt on his life by an axe-wielding maniac because he refused to apologise for drawing a cartoon.

The cartoon in question was of course one of these ones (the one with the bomb) published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten back in 2005. Nancy thinks a number of astonishing things about this woeful story. Here they are:

1. Nancy thinks that the Danish Prime Minister at the time, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, should have apologised to Muslims and that if he had, the matter would have ended there.

As Denmark is a free country, the Prime Minister has no control over what appears in its newspapers and has no authority to apologise on behalf of any of its citizens or organisations. Besides, would this really have prevented the violence? The 'outrage' was carefully cultivated by people who wanted it to lead to violence. Would they have been able to twist an apology to make it sound like an admission of guilt? Either way, I don't share Nancy's certainty that an apology from Rasmussen or anyone else would have calmed everyone down: people intent on mayhem are rarely so easily mollified.

2. Nancy thinks that Jyllands-Posten deliberately humiliated muslims by publishing the cartoons.

Instead, the newspaper claims it was contributing to the debate about self-censorship. This seems a plausible explanation, especially in the light of what happened. I see no particular reason to assume their motives were otherwise, but even if they were - even if they wanted to humiliate Islam and all its adherents - that would hardly constitute an excuse for violence. This is particularly true since most of the violence was directed against people who had nothing to do with the cartoons and their publication. For the most part, it was committed by people who made the same mistake Nancy did in thinking that Denmark should apologise for the perfectly legal actions of some of its citizens.

3. Nancy thinks that the Danes are prejudiced against religion.

You'd be forgiven for thinking they have a damn good reason to be, especially in the wake of the cartoons' publication. But what surprises me about this is Nancy's apparent attitude that being suspicious of religion is something that should invite - and may even deserve - violence. Because muslims profess to be offended by unkind references to their religion, the attitudes of an entire nation are automatically wrong.

4. Nancy thinks that Wetergaard himself was directly responsible for the terrifying attempt on his life. It can be traced, she argues, "directly to the offence caused by Westergaard's cartoon."

This is Nancy's most foolish belief of all. It isn't clear to me in the slightest that having supposedly been offended is an excuse for murder. His attacker could have responded in any number of non-violent ways, such as drawing cartoons of his own, engaging in public debate or simply doing nothing and leaving Westergaard alone. He didn't. He responded by trying to cut him to pieces with an axe in front of his granddaughter. The debate about self-censorship is not an abstract one. It opens floodgates. Backing down when threatened with violence encourages further violence and particularly the suppression of ideas somebody doesn't like.

Westergaard has no reason to apologise for drawing the cartoon he was commissioned to draw. Jyllands-Posten has no reason to apologise for publishing it. Above all, Anders Fogh Rasmussen has no reason to apologise for not attempting to control the press in his country on the grounds that someone might be *gasp* offended or to pretend to apologise on their behalf.

I don't understand why it needs to be repeated, day after day, that nobody has the right to not be offended. People might argue that Jyllands-Posten's article was ill-judged or insensitive (I don't) but you can't credibly argue that other people's choice to employ violence to suppress opinions they don't like can be justified by an appeal to 'offense'.

I have enormous sympathy for Westergaard and his granddaughter. Westergaard has a panic room and was forced to retreat into it, leaving his granddaughter behind. He did this because he had been threatened before and was advised that the safest course of action for everyone involved was to head to the panic room and lock himself in: attackers of this sort rarely harm family members. However, this choice must have been devastating to both Westergaard and his granddaughter and I cannot accept Nancy's assertion that he put himself in the position to have to make that choice by refusing to apologise for doing his job.

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