Here’s what we know: A group called the American Freedom Defense Initiative held a “Draw Muhammad” event yesterday in Garland. Organizers offered more than $10,000 for people to draw cartoons of Islam’s prophet and invited a Dutch politician known for his anti-Muslim views. Just before 7 p.m., two armed men showed up and shot at a security guard, wounding him in the ankle. Then Garland police killed both gunmen, who appear to be from Arizona.
Before the bodies were moved, reporters from outlets both foreign and domestic were on planes headed this way. Local comment sections and social media feeds were almost immediately filled with people either celebrating the deaths — posts on Facebook joked that the best art at the exhibit were the chalk outlines on the sidewalk — or decrying the event and its organizers as “irresponsible.”
At a press conference last night, some conservative media outlets pressed Garland police spokesman Joe Harn on why there was additional security at the event — measures that may have saved countless lives.
“Because of free speech,” someone suggested.
“I didn’t see anything about free speech in there,” Harn replied.
So what was it then?
In terms of the law, this is not a debate. Organizers, attendees, and participants had every legal right to hold the event, and to depict with as much offense as they’d like any religious figure of their choosing. And nothing anyone in that building did or said gave anyone else the right to fire a gun at someone. And I don’t think anyone is questioning whether the Garland police did the right thing by killing both gunmen and taking every precaution around their bodies and vehicle.
But what would the people siding with the event organizers and ostensibly cheering the deaths of these two men say if, instead of a Muhammad drawing contest, this were a Ku Klux Klan rally held in South Dallas, on the streets of the poorest, blackest neighborhoods? How would we frame the conversation if that turned violent?
What if this were an event organized around burning and stomping on the American and Texan flags, right here in Texas, just so people could flex their first amendment rights? And what if a wounded veteran, taking understandable offense to this, reacted violently? (Something similar happened not long ago in Georgia.) How long do you think it would take for words like “incite” to show up in that discussion?
A violent response would be illegal in any of those circumstances, no matter how offensive or hateful the speech became. The law does not account for taste or tact. One person’s righteous activist is another’s arch antagonist, as long as the demonstration does not cause physical harm. Our laws say this speech is protected from government interference, and violence is not.
But does that mean this is something we want in our community? You could argue that the true benefit of this offensive speech is that it draws out these would-be terrorists and allows us to identify and potentially kill them. As a nation, we’ve been in the business of ferreting out terrorists around the world for nearly 15 years now. In Iraq and Afghanistan, a common US tactic involved having soldiers ride around in Humvees until they were attacked, then destroying whoever or whatever they thought did the attacking. Much closer to home, the FBI has been asking young men if they want to blow up buildings, then arresting them when they try. Does any of that make us any safer? Some argue these tactics make us less safe. It certainly doesn’t seem like there are fewer terrorists in the world than there used to be.
And what if the incident yesterday weren’t quelled so quickly? What if more than two guys showed up? What if they had more firepower — or even a bomb? What if the police officers there — men and women who might not have had any stake in the politics or debate of the day and were just doing their duties — were killed in the ensuing violence?
On the other hand, are these fears, reasonable as they may be, reasons not to have an event like this? If the consequence of offending someone might be death, we may have an obligation to shine as much light as possible on the heinousness of that form of disproportionate retaliation. Standing up to a bully seems like the right thing to do, although intentionally offending people rarely, if ever, changes anyone’s mind.
I think most people are civil. Most people don’t want this. I think it’s possible to think both that this event was in bad taste, and that the response was utterly unacceptable. (Even offended Muslims defend the organizers’ rights to hate.) Because I’m an optimist, I like to think that those cynical internet commenters celebrating these events — many of them self-described pro-life Christians — are really only happy this wasn’t worse. But I don’t have any answers to the questions here. What we have are two men dead and another wounded. We have a community on edge. And we have a lot of people who think they have proof of something they already believed.