Were it not for one security guard facing non-life-threatening injuries, all of the key protagonists involved with Sunday’s Texas shootings would have been able to give themselves a hearty pat on the back – posthumously in the case of the two dead gunmen. Including the two deceased, nearly everyone got what they wanted from the event. Among the various violent controversies concerning Islam, free speech and blasphemy seen in recent years, this so far wins hands-down in terms of straightforward box-ticking predictability.
The immediate backdrop to the story runs as follows: by organising a competition to draw cartoons of Muhammad, Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative set out to deliberately insult a large and diverse religious community living in a society saturated with easy access to guns. And as we know only too well, a subsection of that religious community includes a small number of individuals committed to violently defending what they perceive to be their tradition’s honour and entirely happy to martyr themselves in the process. What happens next is gruesomely unremarkable.
In fact, the only thing that actually is remarkable about the Texas shootings is the economical precision by which, aside from the security guard’s injuries, the outcome neatly matched everyone’s key aims. Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi showed their contempt for blasphemy and died as martyrs, and the event organisers felt vindicated in their determination to highlight the threats facing our freedom to be deliberately offensive.
So everybody can be happy. Everybody, that is, if you exclude anyone with vaguely normal behavioural patterns. If you are neither a violent religious fundamentalist, nor someone committed to actively insulting religious communities, then the whole scenario may well seem as absurd and grotesque as a pre-arranged fight between rival football hooligans.
It is true that the American Freedom Defense Initiative was on the right side of US law, while the Islamic State-inspired shooters were not. But both were behaving in a manner so far outside the conventions of familiar social interaction that there is a sharp and significant disconnect between the thought processes of the protagonists and the more mundane questions of daily etiquette encountered by members of Western multicultural communities.
Must you play it again Pam?
In terms of artificiality we have to some extent been here before. The 2005-06 Danish cartoons controversy was largely set in motion by the combined efforts of a culture editor purposefully aiming to highlight instances of self-censorship and a delegation of Danish imams touring the Middle East with a dossier of cartoons and other materials. The editors of Charlie Hebdo, professional purveyors of satire against all and sundry, were clearly aware of the offence caused by their publication.
But in terms of overall efficiency and barefaced obviousness, Geller’s cartoon competition has taken this particular repetitious narrative to a new level.
All this is not to say that the Texas shootings do not touch upon a tension between core values of free speech and respect. This is a tension that runs deep, opening up fundamental debates about what kind of society we want to live in.
But it is a debate that has already been opened up by the Charlie Hebdo shootings, the 2012 Innocence of Muslims video, the Danish Cartoons controversy, the Rushdie affair in the late 1980s, and a host of less high-profile controversies. Coming so soon after the shootings in Paris, the production-line quality of Sunday’s events does not so much reopen the debate, but rather reheat it and serve it to you with the tasteless proficiency of a fast-food outlet.
If you are someone who behaves like a normal person – in other words you don’t shoot people who insult your traditions, or you’re not interested in deliberately exploring the distant outer limits of legally permissible offence – what took place in Texas was in the final analysis predictable, hollow and mindnumbingly pointless.
While both condemning the violence of Simpson and Soofi, and at least acknowledging the bravery of the Charlie Hebdo editors yesterday – praised at PEN’s New York gala – it is worth stating that we are in desperate need of an alternative discourse. Navigating the course between varying factors of respect, freedom of expression, (in)tolerance, and the treatment of minorities is a difficult but necessary conversation required of contemporary Western societies.
In response to this the American Freedom Defense Initiative and the extremist gunmen have simply re-enacted a drama we have all very recently watched before. Featuring a finale characterised by obvious polarisations and actors increasingly out of touch with the practicalities of ordinary living, the time has come for a new set of scriptwriters.