Enough with the cartoons. It's not about cartoons.
The riots and demonstrations across the Middle East and Western Europe (though not yet playing here) over some cartoons of the Muslim prophet Muhammad have set off a parallel intellectual riot in the West over the nature of free speech and free expression. Many pundits and editorialists have worked feverishly to keep this a debate about the propriety of running cartoons. Some news outlets are updating their procedures so as not to offend "religious" sensibilities in the future.
The quotation marks around the word "religious" should say it all. We're not talking about "religion." We're talking about a specific religion - Islam. Does anyone truly think that the burning of Danish embassies and calls for the "slaughter" of those responsible by Muslim protestors have really taught the BBC or the New York Times to be more polite to evangelical Christians or Orthodox Jews? Does anyone really think that Arabic newspapers - often state-owned - are going to stop recycling Nazi-era images of Jews as baby killers and hook-nosed conspirators because they've become enlightened to notion that words can hurt? Considering that an Iranian newspaper just announced a contest for the best Holocaust cartoon, the odds seem slim. Besides, why belittle the Holocaust for something a Danish newspaper did? (Partial credit given for the answer: "It's always useful to pick on the Jews.")
Personally, I didn't think the cartoons were particularly good. They also seemed to be published out of a desire to offend Muslims. The editors and many defenders of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper claim otherwise, saying that they needed to prove there was a climate of fear in Denmark generated by Muslims. They proved there were Muslims eager to generate a climate of fear by offending those Muslims. They succeeded.
But the issue of "offense" is a distraction too. Let's assume that the publication of the cartoons was motivated entirely out of a desire to offend Muslims - or at least some Muslims. How does that change how we should view events now? If I needlessly offend my neighbor, shame on me. If, in response, he burns down my house and threatens to murder my entire family, who cares what I said in the first place? There is a call for a worldwide Islamic boycott of Danish products because of what an independent newspaper did in a free society. (The boycott shouldn't hurt sales of Danish hams, thank goodness.)