A decade ago, a Danish publication posted cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that roiled the Muslim world, resulting in death threats for the editor whose life was subsequently lived under constant security watch. Although this was international headline news, The New York Times refused to publish any of the cartoons, buckling in fear for the security of its own establishment. So of course it’s ironic and amusing that their editorials have been so self-righteous about the need to uphold our absolute freedom of speech in the wake of No Korea’s hacking of SONY and threats to theater owners of a 9/11 type of retribution for screening The Interview. The most sensible suggestion I have read is that the government pay SONY for the rights to the film and then air it free on television and over the internet. It seems patently unfair to call for greater courage from commercial theater owners than the Times was able to summon in its role as dispatcher of all the news that’s fit to print.
In considering the sequence of events, I’m troubled by the notion that private businesses, in this case theater owners, should be expected to pay the penalty for the foolishness of other for profit private ventures. Even if no act of terrorism resulted from the hackers’ threat, wouldn’t audiences stay away from that possibility and wouldn’t theater owners suffer a financial loss? And what would their liability have been if any act of violence had occurred? Would Seth Rogen’s movie have been any different with a fictitious name for an Asian dictator? Is any work of fiction justified in using the real name of a living head of state or public personality? At what point does freedom of speech clash with the right to live without being threatened? What would the reaction of American pundits have been to a satiric movie about President Obama being lynched? We live in a society where you cannot say or print the word nigger without euphemizing it with just its initial - does that represent freedom of speech? Is one word more inflammatory than a movie whose plot concerns a political assassination?
If the Times wishes to restore its bona fides in this area, let it now publish the Mohammed cartoons along with an apology to the American public for its dereliction of duty the first time around. And perhaps a mea culpa to SONY and the theater owners for the Times having made the same decision themselves ten years ago, before deciding to lambaste them for their behavior would be sheepishly appropriate.
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