JC Schildbach, LMHC
Two heavily armed, body-armor-clad, wannabe-jihadists shooting a security guard in the ankle and then getting picked off by a pistol-wielding traffic cop in a parking lot outside a cartoon contest in small-town Texas is not, as Pam Geller would have us believe, some kind of religious war in the United States. Rather, it was Geller’s own failed effort to start a larger fight.
Before I go any further, let me state up front that Geller, along with everybody else in America, has every right to say whatever paranoid, delusional things she wants to say about the inevitable imposition of Sharia Law and the ensuing mandatory ‘honor killings’ by our ‘secret Muslim’ President. She also has every right to hold a cartoon contest deliberately designed to insult a particular group of people over their religious views. Said group of people, or any of its members, has the right to fight back with words, logic, cartoons or delusional rants of their own—but not with bullets, bombs, or knives.
Let me also point out that some people have stated that there are prohibitions against engaging in speech that is designed to incite people to violence. But that doesn’t really apply in this case. If Geller held a rally where she encouraged the attendees to go out and physically attack somebody, then she would be inciting people to violence. Saying something to deliberately offend somebody is not inciting that person (or group) to do anything. Their reaction is entirely up to them.
That said, Geller sailed into Garland, Texas, along with Dutch politician Geert Wilders, to hold a cartoon contest intended to insult Muslims over their belief that the Prophet Muhammad should not be depicted in any physical form—much less in any deliberately offensive form. (Judaism and Christianity, among other religions, have similar prohibitions written into their holy books regarding depictions of holy figures, but plenty of Christians really like pictures and statues of Jesus—unless they’re offensive, in which case they call for bans on whoever made them, whatever paid for them, and whoever hung them on a wall).
Geller’s reason for holding the event at a community center in Garland was apparently related to a Muslim event held there earlier in the year, called “Stand with the Prophet in Honor and Respect,” an event which had been held in Chicago the previous year. In 2015, the “Stand with the Prophet” event had the unfortunate coincidence of having been scheduled to occur shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.
Geller has stated that her cartoon contest is intended as a response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. The Charlie Hebdo folks, though, were equal-opportunity offenders. That is, they didn’t seek only to piss off Muslims, they wanted to piss off everybody. And they’d been going at it for years. They didn’t just hire their own little paramilitary-force-for-a-day and set about trying to troll militant Muslims.
Geller, on the other hand, tried to chum the waters with her cartoon contest, thinking she’d draw a feeding frenzy of violent jihadists to her little event—perfect target practice for the $10,000 worth of security she hired. What she got instead was a pair of inexperienced, young pups, mouths full of aimlessly-chomping teeth, drunk on the blood and guts of Geller’s antagonism, who bit off way more than they could chew.
Geller, when she isn’t directly attempting to insult all Muslims, claims that she is an opponent of Muslim extremists and extremism. However, she does not actually draw that line, or make any consistent effort to explain where that line actually is. To her, Muslims who actually do attack things and people like her cartoon contest and its attendees are seen as proof that she is right about the intent of Muslims to take over America and kill all non-Muslims. Unfortunately, to Geller, Muslims who do not attack are seen as evidence of a quiet, creeping plot—sleeper cells who are biding their time, before they make their move to take over America and kill all the non-Muslims.
Geller also claims she is a defender of free speech, religious freedom, and individual rights. But, again, her position on such freedoms is a bit muddled. For instance, if she is so supportive of religious freedom, it’s hard to understand why she pushed so hard to stop the “ground zero mosque” from being opened, or why she spends so much time antagonizing Muslims in general, accusing the religion as a whole, and all of its adherents, in whatever form, of heinous crimes (and future crimes).
Likewise, Dutch madman Wilders has attempted to ban the Quran in his home country, as well as trying to prevent mosques from being built there—all under the guise of protecting women and other ‘victims’ of Islam. These are not exactly the actions of someone who thinks that the ‘marketplace of ideas’ will lead to the best possible outcome.
In short, Geller and Wilders are in favor of freedoms for those who they agree with, but want to shut down those with whom they disagree, even if Geller’s and Wilder’s disagreements are with vague caricatures of their alleged enemies, or if those disagreements are assumed to apply to all people who fit under a vast umbrella of a label.
Yet, despite Geller’s and Wilders’ proclamations of war, Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi do not represent all of Islam anymore than, say, Michelle Bachmann represents all of Christianity, or anymore than Geller and Geert actually represent the concerns of all people as relates to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
Still, if we’re going to ban Geller from her weird little attention grabs, than might we also have to ban things like, say, The Book of Mormon (the play, not the book)? As much as the authors of The Book of Mormon might have been making a more nuanced critique of religion and what it means to believe, they certainly weren’t out to avoid offense.
And if we’re going to justify Simpson’s and Soofi’s actions as some kind of expected or normal response to Geller’s provocation, then aren’t we moving dangerously in the direction of saying that perpetrators of violence are only acting in ways that the victims of the violence should have expected, and have to accept?
Make no mistake, there are consequences to Geller’s form of speech. The main form of those consequences is that stupid people will agree with her, and will buy into her ridiculous ideas that there is some vast Muslim conspiracy that is mere days away from taking away all of our freedoms as U.S. citizens in order to impose Sharia law. Said stupid people may even commit violent acts of their own, and will certainly engage in forms of speech that are as similarly unappealing as Geller’s. There is also the potential consequence that people of the Muslim faith around the world will view Americans as somehow aligned with Geller’s form of thinking (as opposed to tolerating it, because that’s what we do). Such people may view our tolerance of Geller as evidence of the ill intent of Americans toward the Muslim world, potentially perpetuating a long chain of conflict.
Although I’m not exactly demonstrating this by writing about them, perhaps the best response to people like Geller and Wilders is the response that all but two of the members of the Muslim community in the United States exercised: ignoring them/refusing to take the bait.
Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing about Voltaire, expressed the core idea of freedom of speech as follows: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I’m not sure I’m actually willing to take a bullet so that Geller can continue to peddle her special brand of targeted, incendiary bullshit. But I’m definitely not ready to make an argument that she must be shut down/shut up (like the arguments she has made about Muslims).
At the same time, I’ve also written numerous pieces suggesting that maybe certain forms of speech should be curbed in an attempt to reduce hostility toward people with mental illness, toward minorities, and toward people who generally don’t find themselves at the top of the power pyramid. Curbing such speech is, of course, a matter of personal choice, and a matter of seeking to be decent human beings. Under the banner of individual freedom, we get to say and do what we want, so long as we aren’t actually hurting anybody in some directly demonstrable way.
Of course, Geller isn’t on some quest to prove what a decent person she is, or what decent people Americans are in their acceptance of diverse traditions and differing viewpoints. She’s not on any kind of mission to promote free speech, despite her claims to the contrary.
And Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi went down to Garland Texas with the intent to fight and die, much like Geller and Wilder went down to Garland Texas to try and provoke a fight.
They all got what they wanted—sort of.