Asking for Trouble

There’s a basketball game here in town tonight. The Buffalo Braves, who moved out here in the early eighties and became the San Diego Clippers, and then moved up the coast and became the Los Angeles Clippers, after years of being woeful losers, are in the playoffs, up against the guys from Houston. They’re the Rockets, because that’s where the Houston Space Center was – all our guys in outer space got used to saying “Houston, we have a problem.”

But it’s just a basketball game. Someone will win. Someone will lose. Life will go on, and instant replay ruined everything anyway. Before instant replay, one way to win the big game was, when the ref wasn’t looking, to kick the other team’s star player in the balls. He’d get pissed off and throw a punch, or two or three, and he’d be ejected from the game, not you. All you had to do was look innocent. “What did I do?” Then, with him gone, you’d win the game.

That worked every time, but now the refs go to the monitors and look at what happened from multiple angles. You can’t get away with anything. Now it’s all skill and determination. Everyone has to play the game well – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that the sneaky-nasty element has been eliminated. A bit of the fun is gone.

The sneaky-nasty element has not been eliminated from the rest of life, however, and that might explain this:

On Sunday night, two gunmen opened fire outside a complex in Garland, Texas, that was hosting a contest featuring cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Both gunmen were killed and one security officer was injured in the shootout.

Sunday’s shooting took place outside the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest, which was being held in Garland, a city just northeast of Dallas. The contest, which offered a $10,000 prize, was hosted by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, a group widely characterized as Islamophohbic.

They were trying to tick off Muslims, and they did, and it was all over soon enough:

“As today’s Muhammad Art Exhibit event at the Curtis Culwell Center was coming to an end, two males drove up to the front of the building in a car,” officials wrote on the city’s Facebook page. “Both males were armed and began shooting at a Garland ISD security officer. The GISD security officer’s injuries are not life-threatening. Garland Police officers engaged the gunmen, who were both shot and killed.”

The incident only lasted a few seconds. The first gunman was killed almost instantly, and the second gunman was fatally shot while reaching into a backpack that authorities suspected might have contained explosives.

And that was that – except for the headlines – ISIS attacks America itself! But that may not be true:

The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria claimed that the gunmen at a Texas cartoon exhibition were “soldiers of the caliphate,” but experts say that it’s still unclear if and what ties really existed.

On May 3, authorities say that roommates Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi injured a security officer when they fired assault rifles at the exhibition in a Dallas suburb that featured images of the Prophet Mohammed. Police killed both men. A Twitter account reportedly run by Simpson posted a tweet moments before the attack that said, “May Allah accept us as mujahedeen,” according to CNN.

On Tuesday, a statement from ISIS’s Al Bayan radio claimed responsibility for the attack, marking the first such ISIS claim for an attack on U.S. soil. “We tell America that what is coming will be even bigger and more bitter, and that you will see the soldiers of ISIS do terrible things,” the group said.

Experts aren’t buying it:

“What proof has ISIS offered?” Bruce Riedel, a former member of the CIA and head of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institute, said in an email to TIME. He said police would have been able to confirm “fairly easily” whether the gunmen had received orders from ISIS by checking their phones and computers.

Others say that the links to ISIS may have been tenuous at best. One unnamed U.S. official told Reuters that it was possible ISIS played an “inspirational” role in the attack rather than an “operational” role. “They may not have had formal contact (with ISIS). They may have had email communication or read communications from ISIS, but I don’t think they were directed by ISIS,” former FBI agent Tim Clemente told CNN.

Though it’s still unclear what contact – if any – the gunmen had with ISIS, the FBI had been investigating Simpson since 2006 after recorded him talking about fighting nonbelievers for Allah. He was arrested in 2010, a day before he allegedly planned to leave for South Africa, according to the Associated Press. But he was charged only with lying to a federal agent and given three years of probation and $600 in fines and court fees.

National total panic may not be appropriate yet, but there was this:

Sen. Ted Cruz accused the Obama administration Tuesday of bungling – asserting that federal officials should have intercepted the two men shot dead Sunday before they reached an anti-Muslim conference in Garland.

“Once again, as with Nidal Hasan and the Tsarnaev brothers, we have radical Islamic terrorists who this Administration knew about and yet failed to connect the dots and prevent this act of terrorism,” Cruz said.

He was referring to Hasan’s November 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, and the Boston Marathon bombing, saying they reflect “the same evil” behind the attack in suburban Dallas. A Garland police officer shot dead the heavily armed attackers, Phoenix residents Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, before they could disrupt the gathering.

This was not unexpected:

Cruz, who is running for president, regularly castigates President Barack Obama for weakness and ineffectiveness when it comes to terrorism. He pointed to the Garland incident as fresh evidence, calling it a “heartbreaking act of terrorism and … a reminder of the continued threat of radical Islamic terrorism.”

“It underscores the need for vigilance. And it also underscore the concerns with this Administration’s inability to combat radical Islamic terrorism,” he said.

Cruz added – as he invariably does in campaign speeches – the taunt that Obama refuses to even utter the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” That, he argues, reflects an inability to effectively identify and address the threat.

Obama, of course, wants to calm things down, generally, so he chooses his words carefully. Others don’t, and Sophia McClennen, a professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Penn State – who is co-author of Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics – sees a bit of the old sneaky-nasty going on here:

Coming as it does on the heels of the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris, [this attack] has sparked a new round of debate over the line between free speech and hate speech. And it has returned us again to the question of whether or not it is an unacceptable offense to challenge Muslim practices by depicting the Prophet Mohammed.

But, even though the organizer of the event, Pamela Geller, cites the Charlie Hebdo attacks as the spark that led to her plans to sponsor a Mohammed drawing cartoon contest, there is another precedent to the event. In fact, arguably, Geller simply ripped off an idea that gathered major media attention back in May 2010. That event was held in response to Comedy Central’s decision to censor an episode of South Park that included a depiction of the prophet after they were threatened by an extremist group. Cartoonist Molly Norris decided to respond to the censorship by posting a cartoon of a poster on the Internet titled “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.” The cartoon led to an almost identical set of debates to the one we are having now – but there are very key differences to these two events, differences that reveal a lot about the distinction between satire and hate speech.

The Comedy Central thing was different:

It starts with Norris’ cartoon. Her idea was simple: If everyone drew the prophet, then it would make it impossible for terrorists to determine whom to target. As she stated on her website: “Do your part to both water down the pool of targets and, oh yeah, defend a little something our country is famous for (but maybe not for long? Comedy Central cooperated with terrorists and pulled the episode) the first amendment.”

The poster included a claim of sponsorship by an organization named “Citizens against Citizens against Humor or CACAH (pronounced ca-ca)”, which Norris later explained was clearly meant to be satirical. But before she knew it, the satire was lost, and there were Facebook groups organizing to host events alongside Facebook groups organizing to protest the events. Norris found herself in the middle of a storm about free speech, respect for Islam, and satire. She repeatedly explained that her efforts were more about protecting the rights of fellow cartoonists than attacking Islam and she insisted that her poster was ironic: “I, the cartoonist, NEVER launched a draw Mohammed day. It is, in this FICTIONAL poster sponsored by this FICTIONAL GROUP. SATIRE about a CURRENT EVENT, people!!! (That’s what cartoonists do!)”

Despite distancing herself from her cartoon and despite efforts to bring the idea of everyone drawing Mohammed back into the realm of satire, Norris lost control of her poster and the idea behind it. Others went forward with the event and Norris tried to stay out of the media mess. Eventually Norris ended up on an al-Qaeda hit list published in the English version of Inspire, the terrorist group’s propaganda magazine. That same hit list also included Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane Charbonnier, who was killed in the Paris attacks. Shortly after the list was published Norris changed her name and went into hiding.

Pam Geller isn’t like that:

Geller, outspoken President of the American Freedom Defense Initiative as well as Stop Islamization of America, seems to want anything but quiet. Rather than attempt to spark a debate about how fear, threats, and aggression can lead to censorship of satirical cartoons, Geller wants to draw out a fierce debate about the evils of the Islamic community. She wants to hype fear, not diminish it.

Even though she bristles at the idea that she would be characterized as anti-Islam the Southern Poverty Law Center describes her as “the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead. She’s relentlessly shrill and coarse in her broad-brush denunciations of Islam.” They clearly describe her work as an example of hate speech.

We need to keep things straight:

Now we can all agree that violence is an inappropriate response to speech of any kind. And the attacks are an outrage. That is clear. But there is a radical difference between satire and hate speech. While many debated whether the Charlie Hebdo cartoons had gone too far, there is little question that the “Jihad Watch Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” had none of the irony, critique, or sarcasm of satire. It was just aggressive. Satire, of course, can get mean too. It can cross the line and punch down when it is supposed to punch up, but its goal is to attack ideas and institutions that deserve critical scrutiny and productive skepticism.

So we should not be surprised that the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo was outraged to hear that Geller organized her event in honor of the magazine. Gerard Biard told The Guardian “When we make a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, or Jesus, or Moses, we don’t mock or attack people. We mock or attack institutions, representatives, powers, and, again, political powers.” At the heart of satire is the interest in calling attention to accepted truths, to questioning the status quo, and to exposing a lack of critical thinking. Geller’s project demands that her followers work entirely off of fear-based emotions, leaving all reason aside.

This, of course, may be her greatest insult to the idea of free speech.

That should be obvious:

Free speech is not a license to be stupid; in fact, the very right to free speech depends on the idea that humans are rational subjects. Sure we defend all sorts of speech under the notion of the first amendment, but we would never have even had such an amendment without a firm belief that the rights of the citizen should be grounded in reason and not faith. And there is no greater testament to reason than satire. Satire requires the brain to understand layers of meaning, to unpack irony, and to form independent ideas.

This is why we need to see Geller as another example of the faith-based, fear-mongering thinking that increasingly defines the GOP, rather than the critical satire of Molly Norris’s cartoon poster or the work of Charlie Hebdo. Clearly Geller seems to be attempting to incite the exact sort of violence that took place in Garland, Texas. In fact, it is worth asking if she already knew about the controversy surrounding the first cartoon effort. If she did, and there is good reason to suspect the possibility, then it is worth wondering whether Geller was hoping for violence. She clearly knew what had already happened to Charlie Hebdo. As she all-too-excitedly claimed after the attacks: “This is a war, and the war is here.”

She was, in fact, asking for trouble, but that’s who she is, as Newsweek notes:

Geller’s career in media began in the 1980s, when she joined the New York Daily News. She later moved to The New York Observer as associate publisher. Geller has been waging her own holy war of sorts since the attacks of September 11, 2001. At the time, she had barely heard of Osama bin Laden, the Times wrote of her in 2010. She became a regular commenter on the right-wing anti-jihad blogosphere. Soon, she started her own blog, Atlas Shrugs, an homage to Atlas Shrugged by objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand. Geller’s blog makes her a folk hero to the right wing, but earns her the ire of the left: The Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that monitors hate groups, calls her the “relentlessly shrill and coarse” figurehead of the anti-Muslim movement in America. Geller’s rhetoric was too strident for PayPal, who cut off Atlas Shrugs (the company later reinstated the service and apologized).

Even former colleagues of Geller’s in the anti-jihad movement, like Charles Johnson, who runs the blog Little Green Footballs, think her criticism of Islam goes too far. “Nine-eleven didn’t happen in a vacuum – it came from a long history. But when people like Pam Geller are the loudest voices out there talking about it, it drowns out everything else and makes everyone look crazy,” Johnson told the Times. For her part, Geller thinks Johnson – who, unlike her, believes most Muslims are moderate – is a traitor to his principles.

Even the Anti-Defamation League, an American Jewish group that opposed construction of a mosque near the site of the 9/11 attacks, accused Geller of “vilifying the Islamic faith under the guise of fighting radical Islam.”

She, however, claims she is the aggrieved party here:

Geller blames members of the media and academics for what she calls a “destructive narrative that is advanced at every level.” Criticism of radical Islam is censored, she argues, while those who criticize Israel are given carte blanche. Geller is a strong supporter of the Jewish state. In 2012, a federal judge ruled New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority violated Geller’s first amendment rights when it rejected pro-Israel advertisements submitted by AFDI. The ads were considered incendiary by many. “In any war between the civilized man and the savage,” the ads said, “support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

That’s asking for trouble, and the 2010 New York Times profile is instructive:

She has called for the removal of the Dome of the Rock from atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem; posted doctored pictures of Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court justice, in a Nazi helmet; suggested the State Department was run by “Islamic supremacists”; and referred to health care reform as an act of national rape. …

Her closest partner is Robert Spencer, the proprietor of Jihadwatch.org. Incorporation papers for their American Freedom Defense Initiative list as founding members Anders Gravers, a Danish “anti-Islamization” activist (“Jihad is the knife slicing the salami of freedom”) and John Joseph Jay (“There are no innocents in Islam”). Their lawyer, David Yerushalmi, has sought to criminalize the practice of Islam, when defined as adherence to Sharia, Islamic religious law. …

She wields a similarly broad brush against opponents, using terms like “diabolical” and “stealth jihadist” even for people like the journalist Christiane Amanpour and the Republican operative Grover Norquist.

And there’s more, beyond that salami of freedom:

The outrageous and the solemn are deeply intertwined in her character. Ms. Geller admits to using Atlas Shrugs to test topics significant (the conflict in Sudan) and outlandish (that a young Barack Obama slept with “a crack whore”).

It’s all free speech, and protected, but in an op-ed piece at CNN, Haroon Mohgul argues she’s messing with that concept:

I am Muslim, and after attacks like these, folks always ask, “Do you condemn terrorism?” Or they throw up their hands and say, “Where are the Muslims!” Well, to be blunt: Not at the event. In fact, every major mosque in the Garland, Texas, area not only shrugged off the anti-Islam event happening in their backyard, but also declined to exercise their equal right to peacefully protest it.

It appears from early reports that the suspects were not currently involved with a mosque. This is because American Muslims — our mosques and our leadership — reject radicalism out of hand.

There’s a reason ISIS uses the Internet to propagandize. Jihadists won’t gain traction in American mosques.

So why did Geller claim that the attackers represent large numbers of American Muslims – as she puts it, “your everyday, run of the mill moderates praising mind-numbing savagery” – although her only evidence for that are a few Twitter accounts linked to ISIS, one of which may have belonged to one of the attackers, and none of which represent any American Muslims?

It’s not as though Geller ever lets facts get in the way of a good opportunity: After the attack, she didn’t call for dialogue, for understanding, for bringing people together, which is what real leaders do.

Instead, she went on Fox news and called it a war. And that appears to be what she wants.

He doesn’t see her as a brave defender of free speech:

She’s not celebrating hate speech for the sake of free speech, but to provoke reactions that polarize America, set people at odds, and alienate Muslims, who are American citizens and often first in line to report planned terrorist attacks. … And plenty of people know this, not just American Muslims, who might be presumed to be partial.

Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who killed dozens of fellow Norwegians and published a long, rambling screed justifying his murderousness, cited Geller repeatedly to justify his terrorist actions. The UK’s conservative, right-wing government even banned her from the kingdom (along with her colleague Robert Spencer). Because they know what the Southern Poverty Law Center knows: She’s using one democratic value to subvert other democratic values.

And there’s the argument by analogy:

Should white activists line up to drop the n-word “to support American values” of free speech? Or perhaps march into Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore waving Confederate flags? You have every right to. But should you?

And should you be surprised if a few people react violently, even if that violence is unacceptable? (Which it is.) What if you kept doing it, over and over again? For what possible reason would you want to?

That may be the essential question here. Pam Geller finally got two people killed. Perhaps she hopes for more. People like this could get us all killed. That couldn’t be the idea.

What is the idea? Perhaps it’s like that basketball thing. Kick the other guy in the balls when the ref’s not looking, and when he’s pissed off and throws a punch or two, look all innocent and grin at him when the ref throws him out of the game, and then you win. Maybe it’s like that, but things don’t work like that anymore. Now everyone can see what’s really going on, at least in basketball. Maybe that’s true here too.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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