Archive for February, 2006

I‘m saddened by the failure of most American newspapers to reprint the editorial comics that triggered the so-called “Cartoon Jihad” among Muslims. The typical excuse rendered by the papers is that reprinting the comics would be ‘offensive’ to Muslim sensibilities. This treats not giving offense as a kind of ethical primary or commandment — “Thou Shalt Not Give Offense”. The obvious rejoinder to this is the observation that the papers are engaging in a double-standard, being willing to print items that offend some groups and not others. But there is a deeper question as well: since when is it always wrong to offend people?

The classical definition of a gentleman is someone who never gives offense unintentionally. This definition acknowledges that there are times when being offensive is not only justifiable, it is obligatory. Politeness is a two-way street; the rude are not in a position to demand treatment from others that they will not themselves grant. This is why I’m not particularly moved by concerns that reprinting these cartoons might be offensive to Muslims. Muslims are not exactly well-known for their respectful treatment of the symbols and icons of other belief systems. (Recall, for example, the then-lamented-but-now-largely-ignored destruction of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime — or the innumerable cartoons with anti-Semitic elements published in various Middle-Eastern newspapers.)

As a general rule, it is acceptable to treat people under the same principles that they adhere to themselves in dealing with others. If a criminal uses force against others, he cannot claim wrongdoing when others respond to him with force. A rude person cannot invoke the principles of etiquette should others treat him poorly in response. And Muslims are not in a position to complain when their religious icons are treated with the same (lack of) respect they show to the icons of others.

Indeed, granting people the protections of principles they reject through their actions just undermines the principles. You don’t encourage the acceptance of a principle by rewarding people for not following it. Giving deference to Muslim feelings of offense at satire of their religious symbols, while not calling them on their myriad of similar offenses directed at non-Muslims, simply feeds into the preexisting sense of Muslim exceptionalism. Islam already incorporates a systematic double-standard, with certain actions permitted to believers but banned to infidels. Confirming and reinforcing this double-standard by acquiescing in its application (as most American newspapers have been doing) just makes it harder to integrate Islam into modern, pluralist societies.

There is no such thing as a legal right not to be offended. But, more importantly, there is no moral requirement to avoid giving offense to those whose own behavior is offensive. Justice, in fact, requires the opposite.

A number of blogs have been buzzing about the recent exchange between Paul Mirengoff and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) on the topic of FISA and the NSA intercept program. The Bush administration argues that the post-9/11 congressional authorization of force provides statutory authority under FISA for the intercept program. Democrats disagree. This is therefore in part a dispute over the intent of the legislature when it passed the authorization of force. Mirengoff asks the obvious question: if the intent of Congress has been misinterpreted, why not pass a clarifying resolution? That would seem to settle the issue one way or the other. Durbin’s reaction to this idea can be compared to that of a Frenchman to a bar of soap, or perhaps a vampire to a clove of garlic.

I understand why the Democrats wouldn’t want to put such a clarifying resolution up for a vote. It would require them to take a clear stand on the underlying issue of whether this kind of surveillance is desirable or not. If they vote to deny the authority, they look like they’re more concerned about the alleged civil rights of terrorists than they are about the security of law-abiding Americans. That plays right into the Republican electoral strategy for the mid-term elections. Being perceived as siding with terrorists equals the political kiss of death. But if they vote to support the authority, they’d be validating the Bush administration’s position, acknowledging that the NSA intercept program was always legal under existing law. That would make them look like feckless, unprincipled opportunists who spent months attacking the President for something they wound up admitting was never a problem. It would also infuriate their left-wing activist base, which is already pretty torqued with them for failing to halt the confirmation of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. The end result would also be very politically damaging.

So I understand why the Democrats don’t want to push this line. The question in my mind is, given the above, why don’t the Republicans do it themselves? I can come up with some speculations, e.g.:

  1. The Republicans are spineless political idiots. (Always a good guess.)
  2. The Republican leadership in Congress thinks such a resolution would fail if put to an open vote.
  3. The Republican leadership thinks the public would react badly to the passage of such a resolution.
  4. There’s some technical legal reason why such a resolution wouldn’t settle the issue, of which I am not aware.

Right now, I’m inclined to go with reason (1), because I know it’s true.

(As an aside, I’d note that the conservative glee over Durbin’s flustered reaction to getting an actual hardball question can cut both ways. I know a number of Republicans who wouldn’t fare too well if faced with similar hard questions from equally well-informed interlocutors with differing political views. And I expect such will happen with increasing frequency in the future. Glenn Reynolds’ Army of Davids fights for more than one side.)

Absolutely. F*#@king. Brilliant.