Caesar's belated epiphany

Posted: Mar 01, 2006 12:05 AM

OKLAHOMA CITY - Another day, another headline. The world moves on. Not I.

I'm obsessing about those 12 cartoons, a world gone mad and an American media lost in self-righteous loser-ness. My own tribe surrendered without a fight, and we may pay for generations. Unless.

I'm speaking to a large crowd in a church not far from the site of our most infamous homegrown terrorist act. It's been almost 11 years since Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 and wounding some 500.

Now a memorial stands in the building's place. A Cyclone fence nearby is stuffed with mementos - teddy bears for the babies who died in the day-care nursery, notes for friends, family and strangers. So many come here, I'm told, that the fence has to be cleared every few weeks, its contents stashed in a warehouse.

Then it begins again. Week after week, year after year. Trinkets, toys, memories.

On this brisk February morning, the church is filled to capacity with 1,200 to 1,300 Oklahomans. The cartoon controversy is still fresh, so I talk about that. A dozen caricatures published last fall in a Danish paper, Jyllands-Posten, had recently resurfaced in the Middle East. Outrage, riots, flag-burnings. Same ol' same ol'.

Except this time, those who chose to be offended want to kill the rest of us. Handmade signs punctuate news reports: "Behead those who insult Islam." Danish embassies in Beirut and Damascus are torched, while Danish cartoonists go into hiding.

A poll, meanwhile, finds that 40 percent of Muslims living in England want Sharia law in predominantly Muslim areas, which effectively would create a nation within a nation. A leading imam says apologies aren't enough. He wants those who dare insult Muhammad to be prosecuted and punished.

It's the Islamic way. Not our way, but no matter. We in the West either "get it" - conform to Islam - or we will get it. In due time, my friend, in due time.

I ask for a show of hands. How many of you good people have seen the cartoons that have ignited the Muslim world and tilted even more hatred our way? One hand, two, three. I count maybe 10 to 15, no more than 20 out of more than 1,200.

These are not unsophisticated "ordinary Americans," as the media like to refer to those who live in flyover country. They may be "regular" Americans - hard-working and family-oriented - but they're not "ordinary." They're well-educated, engaged and interested in their world. Admittedly, they're mostly adults of a certain age, probably untethered to the Internet, which may explain why they haven't seen the cartoons.

What is less easily explained is why American newspapers, with a couple of exceptions, have failed to inform their readers about one of the most important stories of our age. Yes, "most important." The threatened suppression of free speech through an aggressive and organized assault on Western principles can't be considered anything less.

Especially when the lead dog in the free world - America's media - tucks tail and hides under the coffee table. To forfeit principle to excuses of sanctimonious sensitivity or, my favorite, "maturity" is to misunderstand the point.

How, pray, are Americans such as those in my Oklahoma audience to make a judgment about the cartoon controversy without being privy to the cartoons themselves? How are newspapers to survive if they won't serve up news?

Papers have been in decline for several years as competition on television and the Internet grows, while a blogosphere filled with citizen journalists attracts new fans. As circulation drops and advertisers seek more lucrative venues, newspaper owners do the opposite of what they should. Instead of beefing up resources, they cut staffs and budgets to ensure an even worse product, and then send readers to the Internet to learn what papers are unwilling to deliver.

I'd like to make a modest proposal for the redemption of newspapers, the good of the nation and the cause of freedom. A day of solidarity - perhaps the Ides of March? - when every newspaper in the nation prints the cartoons with an explanation of why freedom requires vigilance against tyranny and how a free press is critical to that purpose.

Vigilance begins with never surrendering the freedom to express even unpopular ideas. No one gets special treatment, but as consolation, everybody gets to live free. It is helpful at this juncture to note that while we occasionally suffer insult in this country, we never worry about being beheaded.

In Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," when the soothsayer warned, "Beware the Ides of March," Caesar brushed him off, saying: "He is a dreamer, let us leave him. Pass." Those rioting in the Middle East against the West dream of a world ruled by Islamic law.

American newspapers have a duty not to ignore them or give them a pass.

Et tu?