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The Goal Of These Pages

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By Fred Hiatt
Sunday, February 5, 2006

Last week the editorial page received hundreds of letters and e-mails suggesting that The Post's opinion pages had crossed a line, not once but twice. The criticism echoed, in a very faint way, a controversy raging through Europe and the Muslim world. Three distinct stories -- but together they offer a chance to say something about how we view the role and responsibility of opinion pages.

The European affair began Sept. 30, when a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. Muslims view any picture of Islam's founder as blasphemous, and these were particularly insulting; one showed him with a bomb in his headdress.

Muslim protests simmered through the fall, gaining strength in recent weeks with boycotts of Danish products and demands that Denmark's prime minister apologize. To show solidarity with the Danish paper, newspapers in many European countries last week reprinted the cartoons. Protests in several Muslim countries in turn gained strength, in some cases with violence threatened against Europeans and their embassies.

What to make of this? Muslims (and anyone else) are well within their rights to protest the publication of the cartoons if they are offended. They show a basic misunderstanding, though, when they demand apologies from leaders of Denmark or other European countries. In many Muslim-majority countries (Egypt and Syria, for example), officials do control most of the press and so are accountable for the ugly anti-Semitism that often appears in their newspapers. In Denmark, as here, the government cannot tell newspapers what to print or what not to print. We are free to be offensive.

But that leads to an important distinction: The freedom to offend brings

with it a responsibility not to offend gratuitously.

That is the line that we at The Post were said to have crossed last week. The first alleged transgression was a cartoon by Tom Toles last Sunday. It took off on a comment by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had denied that the Army was stretched thin and described it instead as "battle-hardened." The cartoon showed a quadruple amputee in a hospital bed, with "Dr. Rumsfeld" saying, "I'm listing your condition as 'battle hardened.' " The chart on the bed identified the patient as "U.S. Army."

On Thursday we published a letter describing the cartoon as "reprehensible," "beyond tasteless" and "a callous depiction" of wounded soldiers. The letter was signed by all six members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, something that doesn't happen often and that certainly got our attention.

Toles is on the staff of The Post and participates in our editorial board meetings, but he operates independently; I don't tell him what to draw. On the other hand, I

am responsible for what appears on the editorial and op-ed pages; with Toles, as with independent columnists, it's my job to make sure the gratuitously offensive doesn't appear.

So why this cartoon? I respect the views of the chiefs, and of others who echoed their criticism, and I understand their reaction. But I don't agree with their reading of the cartoon. (Nor, by the way, did many other readers, who wrote to support Toles or take issue with the chiefs.) I think it's an indictment of Rumsfeld, who is portrayed as callous and inaccurate in his depiction of the Army and its soldiers. Whether that's fair to the defense secretary is a separate question. I don't believe Toles meant the cartoon to demean the soldiers themselves, and I don't think it did.

A separate torrent of e-mails objected to our publication Tuesday of an op-ed, "What Hamas is Seeking," by Mousa Abu Marzook, deputy political bureau chief of Hamas. Readers said we should not give space to a terrorist organization, especially for a piece of "propaganda" that obscured Hamas's longstanding commitment to the destruction of Israel.


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