Letter from an editor

Posted: Feb 17, 2006 12:01 AM

Dear I Dare You,

It was wholly a pleasure to get your letter daring us to reprint the cartoons that have been used to incite those riots all over the Muslim world.

But why would we want to do that? To prove our manhood? But we didn't run cartoons that might be considered blasphemous before these riots broke out; why do so afterward? Do we really want to give howling mobs that much influence over our decisions? Why would we let the haters provoke us into offending decent Muslims - in order to drive them into the hands of the fanatics?

Just the other day, I nixed a cartoon showing Jesus driving a van with a political bumper sticker on it. No doubt it was intended to satirize a candidate identified with the Religious Right. I saw nothing unacceptable with the political message of the cartoon, whatever my own views on the subject, but only with the use of a sacred image to deliver it.

Why would I adopt a different standard when the figure being used to deliver a political message is that of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him? A mutual respect for one another's beliefs befits a tolerant society.

There are many criticisms of the press that deserve serious consideration, and then there are just the taunts. ("I double-dare you!") That's not an argument, it's a schoolyard chant.

One reason to publish the cartoons, it's said, is to show we won't be intimidated. One reason not to publish them, it's said, is that, if we do, somebody might get hurt. Both arguments are equally unworthy, and both should be equally disregarded.

The decision to publish or not to publish should be made on the merits of the cartoon in question, not on what others will think of us or threaten to do to us if we publish it. That's their decision and theirs is the responsibility for it.

Theoretically, there may come a time when exercising freedom of speech would be irresponsible - the classic case is shouting Fire! in a crowded theater - but thank goodness this is not such a time, at least not in this country.

While it might be inappropriate for our editorial page to publish such a cartoon, I would hope we'd vigorously defend the right of others to do so. Not only because our own judgment may be fallible, but the test of freedom, it has been well said, is freedom for the thought we hate. It's not necessary to share a view in order to defend others' right to express it.

The Philadelphia Inquirer had every right to reprint these cartoons, just as those who disagreed with that decision had every right to assemble and protest peaceably. It's a free country - for both.

And in a free country, no one should be afraid to voice his opinion. That's the message we should be sending the Arab world, with its sordid dictatorships, brutal autocracies and well-orchestrated mob scenes: There's a better way to resolve disputes than suppressing opinions we don't agree with.

Happily, the paper I work for believes in the separation of news and opinion (it takes constant attention to maintain that wall between the two) and whether to publish the offending cartoons is a much closer call for the news side of the paper. For when does the news value of the cartoons outweigh any impropriety in publishing them? It's a decision I'm glad is not mine.

But even if the cartoons never run in the news columns, they're available elsewhere. That's what tabloids and blogs and bulletin boards and competing media in general are for, and they all play an essential role in a free country. All those other outlets have a right to make their own decisions about the cartoons - a right that should be defended by all.

Thanks for listening,

Inky Wretch