Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bin Laden is Still Wrong

Tibor R. Machan

Stubbornness is not a disease but mostly a moral problem. If in the face of reason someone keeps holding on to irrational ideas, it isn’t that he or she cannot change but that he or she will not change. It can, of course, be very difficult to reexamine one’s ideas; their foundations can be very deep seated and resistant to scrutiny. But for those who have chosen to be specialists about the veracity of belief systems there is a moral obligation to keep vigilant about getting it right.

Osama bin Laden seems unwilling to consider that his views on freedom of speech just don’t cut it. Once again, in response to the republication of insulting cartoons in some European newspapers, bin Laden seems to have unleashed physical threats, refusing to understand that in a country with any degree of justice in its legal system, it is not possible or desirable to officially censor the press however much some think its content is blasphemous or impolite.

Bin Laden is reported to have said that "The response [to the republished cartoons] will be what you see and not what you hear and let our mothers bereave us if we do not make victorious our messenger of God," amounting to a somewhat vague but still ominous warning. He continued by saying that "You went overboard in your unbelief and freed yourselves of the etiquettes of dispute and fighting and went to the extent of publishing these insulting drawings...." "This is the greatest misfortune and the most dangerous and the judgment for it will be stronger."

Consider, for a start, that bin Laden appears to be addressing all Europeans--specifically, governments and VIPs such as the Pope--when he says “You went overboard.” But in a free society these people have no authority to edit privately owned newspapers, no legitimate power to force editors to expunge what bin Laden thinks are unwise features in their papers. In such societies there are innumerable insulting drawings and columns that target various icons that are, in the opinions of others, sacred and holy. Comics routinely make fun of people’s most deeply held convictions. Cartoonists relentlessly hammer away at people and events that others insist must not be treated humorously.

In free societies the proper response to such offensive materials in the press and elsewhere must be confined to words and other peaceful protests and rebukes. No government official is permitted to shut down a newspaper for publishing even the most inconsiderate and ridiculing materials about what some people want to have left free of defilement.

Bin Laden seems to have no clue at all that any government that would be legally permitted to become censorious would then have the authority to expunge criticism of its own policies. Bin Laden doesn’t appear to understand that people in relatively free countries have no legitimate power over each other’s peaceful conduct and he fails to appreciate that drawings, words, symbols and such are not knives, bullets, bayonets, or swords. Bin Laden seems clueless about how free men and women have the right to speak out on anything they choose while others are free to turn away and not listen, look, or otherwise take notice.

No one can deny that many people in free countries can behave unwisely, disrespectfully, even without etiquette, with impunity. That is just the meaning of “free.” (Sadly, of course, even in most free societies this is lost sight of when people get upset with what others give expression to, as when they voice racist or sexist ideas, when they say what’s politically incorrect! But that inconsistency is a matter to be lamented at another time.)

Even in the parts of the globe that bin Laden criticizes and threatens there are many who regard him with some measure of respect, probably because of his posturing, his demeanor which mimics that of an educator and hides from immediate perception his true nature as a thug. Yet bin Laden does indeed appear--if the reports of his opinions are accurate--to be a vicious thug, not a lofty guru, as he appears to wish to be perceived. Only once he grasps that human beings must be free to say what they think, good or bad, can he expect to reach the level of civility that would earn him respectful attention.

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