There is an interminable dispute in this country over who is the most American, who has the strongest values, who’s the most patriotic.
But when proof of patriotism and courage in the face of attack is measured by something other than who professes these values loudest and most oft, the room becomes strangely silent. When the time comes to demonstrate patriotism with something more than simply screaming, shouting and challenging the patriotism of those you disagree with, how many people are actually willing to step forward?
On September 30, 2005, a Danish newspaper contained in it a cartoon depicting Muhammad, the Prophet of the Muslim Faith. This is forbidden under Muslim law, and Muslims across the world rioted, resulting in over 100 deaths, damage to Danish embassies, $170 million lost in boycotts, and a reward of $11 million for anyone beheading the cartoonist behind the sketch (who is still in hiding).
On April 12, 2006, creators and executive producers of the animated sitcom “South Park”, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, produced an episode of their cartoon featuring the prophet Muhammad. Fearing terrorist retaliation, Comedy Central, the network which airs South Park, censored it.
Two weeks ago they tried again.
The episode began with the South Park boys finding Tom Cruise in a candy factory packing fudge. Incensed when he is called a “Fudge Packer”, he gathers together all of the celebrities ever mocked by South Park into a class action lawsuit against the town.
The South Park residents ask Tom what they can do to get him to drop the suit. Since he only wanted the gay jokes to stop, and since there is only one person in the entire world (above Gandhi, the President of the United States, even Jesus himself) who cannot ever be mocked, Tom asks the town to deliver him the Prophet Muhammad, so that he may learn Muhammad’s secret of being above ridicule.
In order to deliver him, however, South Park residents would have to show him. So they struggle with how to do it. Do they put him inside a U-Haul with no windows, is that okay? What about covered with a sheet, or in a bear suit? If he talks, is that okay?
As they try to figure out how to deliver Muhammad, a group of “Gingers”—red head kids tired of being made fun of–plant bombs throughout South Park and demand the prophet for themselves, or they’ll blow up the town.
Since the threat of getting blown up is scarier than a lawsuit, the town decides to give in to the Gingers. Seeing that the threat of violence works better than legal action, the celebrities decide to attack the town until Muhammad is delivered to them.
The episode was a cliffhanger. By acquiesced to the terrorist demands of the Gingers, South Park has encouraged more demands. If they do not deliver Muhammad to either side, both will destroy them. If they do deliver Muhammad to one side, the other will destroy them (as will Muslim extremists, since in order to deliver him the town must “show” him to prove it’s really him, and doing so is forbidden by Muslims). As the town succumbs to fear, the boys try to protect Muhammad while also argue why the town must not submit to threats of violence.
In a single, genius stroke (common to the Emmy Award winning show), Matt and Trey scripted real life into the show and the show into real life, putting Comedy Central in the very spot the characters of South Park found themselves in, and with the first episode itself an argument for the uncensored airing of the second.
While the FCC does have decency standards of what can and cannot air on television, those standards do not apply as strictly to cable channels like Comedy Central, and the airing of Muhammad is not in fact prohibited by either the laws or customs of the United states. None the less, the question became, would they air the second episode completely uncensored.
After airing the first, an extremist Muslim organization in New York published veiled threats against the lives of Trey and Matt, as well as their home addresses and those of the Comedy Central offices in New York and California.
Threats began pouring in, as well as photographs of the assassination of Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker murdered for a documentary he made about Muslim women (the writer of the documentary remains in hiding). Hours before the airing of the second episode, the police reported what they called a “credible bomb threat” against the network.
The episode ran, with vast swaths of it censored, not just the images of Muhammad, but even the mentioning of his name (which had previously been uncensored) and even the final “moral of the story” scene (common to south park episodes) where the characters discuss what they’ve learned about the cost of free speech and the tactics of terrorism.
Should the episode have been censored? I don’t know, I’m not even sure there is a right answer. Both showing and not showing the image carries significant potential consequences and any choice they make probably can’t be defined in terms of right or wrong, but rather as a choice of character. What does the president of the network tell a single mother working as a receptionist at the front desk, who loves free speech as much as anyone, but is just trying to raise her children, to feed them, and whose office is now under threat of suicide bombing (and Comedy Central doesn’t offer hazard pay, I checked)?
So what do we do?
In the final scenes in Spartacus, the Romans have captured the slave army, and offer to let them go free if the leader Spartacus will identify himself so they may torture and kill him. Each of the slaves in turn stands up and shouts “I am Spartacus!”
This is an issue of free speech, and nobody benefits from free speech more than American television networks. Shows like Dateline, 60 Minutes, and Frontline all survive because of free speech. Where are they? Bill O’Reilly, Anderson Cooper, and Keith Olberman consider themselves patriots, standing up for the constitution and for American rights and liberties. They have reported on this very incident, but have not shown (or attempted to show) Muhammad themselves. If every network in the country airs his image (respectfully, in the context of reporting on this story) it defuses the responsibility, makes all networks, all of whom profit from free speech, equally culpable. Yes, terrorists might then want to bomb all of them, but last I checked they already want to do that.
The idea that any one religion, person, or prophet is or should be above critique or scrutiny should always be challenged, and the purpose of the very first amendment to the constitution of these United States is to guarantee that freedom. And in the face of threats to that freedom, it is the responsibility of those who most profit from it to stand up and say “I am Spartacus!”