MRBlog | Free Speech in Garland, Texas

Pamela Geller reading Charlie Hebdo, via The Revealer
Pamela Geller reading Charlie Hebdo, via The Revealer

By Ryan T. Woods

The carapaced glass of the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas formed the proscenium for the latest episode of gun violence on American soil. That the two assailants killed in the exchange with security were aspiring jihadists seeking to avenge the defamation of the prophet ensured that the reverberations from this shooting would extend far beyond a convention center lobby in suburban Dallas. Because this incident entails some of the most combustible elements in American political culture – free speech, firearms, terrorism, Islam – the desire to interpret and explain it has proved irresistible.

These interpretations expose not only the contours of our framing narratives, but also the power relations that run seamlessly through them. When Pamela Geller, the agitator-in-chief of AFDI, engineered the “Draw Muhammed” event, she could never have imagined that the response to her provocation would offer such an elaborate confirmation of her mythology of Islam and the West locked in an intractable conflict. Islamic terrorists have declared war on our right to free speech by this brazen attack on American soil, she and her supporters declare. On their view, charges of Islamophobia or scruples about the limits of free speech amount to implicit endorsements of terroristic violence. As Patrick Blanchfield points out in his penetrating analysis of these developments in The Revealer, this right to speak freely — and thus, to identify the combatants, to demarcate the lines of battle, and to chronicle the war — is itself shaped by privilege in ways distinctive to the American experience.

… the most important frame we need to resist is one that harkens back to this January’s attack by radicals on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, which takes events in Garland as yet another iteration in a perennial showdown between “free speech” and “religious violence.” This is not just because, per Bady, this frame cedes grounds to Geller and Wilders and their reactionary compatriots. Nor still is it because, as Randy Potts’ description of the Garland gathering manifestly suggests, there’s a palpably religious feel to the pro-free speech advocacy. In addition to these reasons, I think it’s vital to reject the abstract free speech versus religious violence frame because of two difficult, repellant realities. First, because “Free Speech” in the United States already encompasses what in practically every other developed democracy on the planet would already be considered violence. Second, because, like most other ostensibly “universal” American rights, the ability to both call for and condemn religiously motivated violence is not an ability equally enjoyed by all — it is a privilege of certain specific groups.