Free society vs. Fear society

The current SONY cinema crisis is not about a (possibly) stupid and offensive (to North Korea) comedy called "The Interview." It's much bigger than that.

It is about our democratic tradition of freedom of expression and whether we are prepared to stand firm for our principles. It appears we are not.

After theater operators (with about 18,000 screens) said they wouldn't book it, SONY capitulated and said it wouldn't release the movie as planned on Christmas Day, and maybe never. So the theater owners and the movie owner both gave in to a vague threat of a terrorist attack, emanating from North Korea, the U.S. government believes. While many things are possible, attacking 18,000 screens is not.

So it's a silly movie, who cares except the studio and stars Seth Rogan and James Franco? I do, and so should you, because this isn't the first time something like this has happened, and it won't be the last.

Turn the clock back and we find Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" earning him a death sentence (fatwa) in 1988 from the illustrious Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Also in 1988 "The Last Temptation of Christ" was condemned by some Christian groups. In 2005 the so-called Muhammad cartoons were condemned by many Muslims who demanded they not be printed. Most newspapers reported the controversy, but most cowardly did not print them.

"The Satantic Verses" gave offense. So did the cartoons. Most likely "The Interview" would have given offense -- to some.

But "offense" is a bad yard stick. What if Al-Qaeda threatens theaters showing "American Sniper"? Perhaps some Egyptian takes offense at "Exodus: Gods and Kings."

Next, someone is offended at the theme of a book being considered for publication. Then a TV series or documentary. Then a story being worked on by a newspaper. Do we stop in our tracks, frozen by fear?

Does North Korean dictator Kim Jong-UN get to veto American movies? I can easily imagine a scenario where certain subjects and people become sacred cows, with studios too frightened to tackle them. And no one would even know -- "touchy" subjects would just be dumped.

That's self censorship and that's what editor Flemming Rose was trying to demonstrate when he commissioned cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad from Danish cartoonists and illustrators who were willing -- and many weren't.

Rose explains all this in his book, "The Tyranny of Silence." In brief, and it's hard to boil a book down to a few words, but it is this: Freedom of speech means freedom to offend because different concepts offend different people and if we obey all the taboos, new ideas would not emerge.

Rose praises the First Amendment and points to how much of Europe has silenced itself in the name of diversity, or an unwillingness to offend. That translates into an unwillingness to defend its own liberal values.

So this issue isn't a stupid comedy. It is free people having the freedom to express themselves in a free society.

If we don't have a free society, we have a fear society. Remember the last lines of our National Anthem: "The land of the free and the home of the brave."

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