Opinion writer September 19, 2012

Charlie Hebdo, a French satire magazine, published Wednesday cartoons that nastily mock the prophet Muhammad, and European governments immediately feared more violence like the murder and arson at U.S. diplomatic installations that followed the appearance of a crude video about Muhammad. France closed 20 embassies as a precaution; the French foreign minister chided the magazine for pouring “oil on the fire.” Germany’s foreign minister used the same phrase.

I say: One cheer for Charlie Hebdo. I doubt that its cartoons are either laudable or responsible. In fact, I’m sure that they are neither. But if free speech means anything, it’s the right to say and publish things that other people find objectionable and irresponsible, even blasphemous. Censorship is an affront to freedom, whether imposed by official decree or through a rioters’ veto — as the Middle Eastern mobs and those who set them in motion seem to want.

Charles Lane is a Post editorial writer, specializing in economic policy, federal fiscal issues and business, and a contributor to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

That is the legitimate political point that Charlie Hebdo’s editors are making, at no small risk to their safety. The publication’s offices were fire-bombed last year and have been under police protection since. As the magazine’s director told Reuters: “It shows the climate — everyone is driven by fear, and that is exactly what this small handful of extremists who do not represent anyone want — to make everyone afraid, to shut us all in a cave.”

There’s been too much equivocation about such matters lately.

I can understand why the Obama administration, trying to quench a crisis last week, would denounce the trashy and deliberately insulting video “Innocence of Muslims.” To their credit, administration officials, the most forthright of whom was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said that nothing can justify violence — and tried to defend free speech.

But they couldn’t really square the circle. The more official opprobrium they heaped on the video, the more they implied that the rioters had a valid point — and the more they seemed to reward violence.

I suppose that the U.S. government could try to denounce all potentially Islamophobic expression consistently, regardless of whether it triggers violence, just as the French government has preemptively distanced itself from Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons.

But that would be an impossible task — even if the government could explain why it condemns mockeries of Muhammad and not, say, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

Meanwhile, Obama administration actions undermined its words about free expression. The White House contacted Google, which does millions of dollars in business with the federal government, and asked it to reconsider whether “Innocence of Muslims” might have violated YouTube’s terms of use. Exercising highly selective prosecutorial discretion, the government rounded up the video’s alleged producer for an “entirely voluntary” session with his federal probation officer.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took it upon himself to call the Rev. Terry Jones, the Islamophobic preacher in Florida, to warn him that U.S. troops would be in danger if he didn’t cease his support for the offensive video.

Think about that: The commander of the world’s most powerful military machine contacted an American civilian and suggested that his exercise of a constitutional right — and not enemy forces — was putting U.S. lives at risk. But it’s not surprising, given that Dempsey’s former staff lawyer argued in a recent op-ed that “Innocence of Muslims” is not constitutionally protected speech.

Among the many threats that Islamic extremism poses to the West, censorship-by-riot may be the most insidious. We have been facing it at least since Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a kill-the-apostate decree against British novelist Salman Rushdie in 1989. It arose again in 2006, when Muhammad-mocking cartoons in Denmark prompted the sacking of Danish embassies and death threats against the artist.

Think I exaggerate? No less a pillar of intellectual freedom than Yale University Press decided three years ago not to publish the Danish cartoons in an academic book on the controversy, even though they were clearly relevant. Yale declined to print any images of Muhammad in the book, including a sketch by the 19th-century artist Gustave Doré. Yale said “experts” advised that depicting the prophet might offend some Muslims and trigger violence.

We can’t slide one more inch down this slippery slope. Voltaire famously remarked: “I do not agree with a word that you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” That must be the West’s unequivocal, united answer to those who would exploit the ugly words of a few to justify the violent deeds of a mob.

lanec@washpost.com