Ross Mackenzie

While Rome burned, Nero legendarily fiddled. And while much of the Middle East smoked with Islamic rage over ... cartoons . U.S. senators castigated the Bush administration for an espionage program meant to protect Americans against terrorism, chiefly of the Islamic variety.

            The last thing we expect of Congress these days is a sense of proportion. Still, while mobs attack freedom of speech abroad, it's odd to hear senators assail the administration for efforts, of which we so far know little, to safeguard the home front by eavesdropping.

            I hope few Americans would be likely to pooh-pooh either concern -- freedom here, freedom abroad. Why, then, isn't our ongoing national discussion of National Security Agency wiretaps a little calmer, a little more patient?

            Because that's not how politicians at the national level play any more. Yet, as I say, the timing of the whole thing is odd.

            What the mobs surge and seethe about is, on the surface, blasphemy -- disrespect to the deity. The cartoons in question, published in European newspapers, lampooned Mohammed, which you're really not supposed to do if you're Muslim.

            Wait, though: The lampooners, and their customers, aren't Muslims at all. My own guess would be, given the secularist climate of modern Europe, that the cartoonists are secularists to a man: indifferent to any god except the truth as they themselves perceive it. Which, come to think of it, is what Westerners usually mean when they talk of free speech. They mean you may be some kind of screwball, but here's the rope -- free speech -- to hang yourself with.

            One gets the idea, for some quaint reason, that in Islamic countries, relatively few see things thus. Freedom to express yourself means, in many Middle Eastern venues, the freedom to have your throat cut or your family incinerated or whatnot. It is a point many American policy-makers -- right up to the Oval Office level -- acknowledge with some reluctance. Doesn't everybody want freedom? Ah, no, as it happens. Witness Hamas' triumph in the Palestinian elections; witness the anti-cartoon riots in the Muslim world.

Ross Mackenzie

Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.

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