Attacking iconoclasts (meant here in its literal meaning) has been a constant throughout human history. It’s one of the great dividing lines, like laughter and face-to-face copulation, that separates man from beast. Indeed, I’m betting it was a fundamental element of even pre-human history. Can we doubt seriously that some gang of Neanderthals didn’t crush the skulls of others who decorated cave walls in “offensive” ways? In the 20th and 21st centuries alone, all sorts of human expression have led to brutality and murder. The ground of Europe and Asia and all the continents with the (possible) exception of Antarctica is fertilized with the blood and bones of martyrs who have done nothing more than make tangible their thoughts in words, music, and pictures. Yet even in a country like ours that threatens consenting adults for making dirty movies with effective life sentences, or in European countries where speech codes imprison malefactors for “hate speech,” there is a massive gulf between “mere” censorship and death threats, between the answering of “bad” speech not with more speech but with the blade, the bullet, or the bomb.
There comes a point in any society’s existence where it must ultimately, to paraphrase Martin Luther (who himself was more than happy to see opponents put to death), dig in its heels and say here we stand, we will do no other. We don’t need to be perfectly consistent philosophically or historically or theologically to assert what is special and unique not just about the United States, with its bizarre and wonderful articulation of the First Amendment, but the greater classical liberal project comprising not just the “West” (whatever that is) but human beings in whatever town, country, or planet they inhabit. And at the heart of the liberal project is ultimately a recognition that individuals, for no other reason than that they exist, have rights to continue to exist. Embedded in all that is the right to expression. No one has a right to an audience or even to a sympathetic hearing, much less an engaged audience. But no one should be beaten or killed or imprisoned simply for speaking their mind or praying to one god as opposed to the other or none at all or getting on with the small business of living their life in peaceful fashion. If we cannot or will not defend that principle with a full throat, then we deserve to choke on whatever jihadists of all stripes can force down our throats.