From Guadalcanal to Garland: Why We Fight

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The two zealots who drove from Phoenix with automatic weapons, body armor, and the encouragement of Islamic State recruiters arrived in Garland, Texas, apparently bent on murder. They didn’t succeed. After wounding an unarmed man, they were gunned down by a traffic cop moonlighting as a security guard. But what they were really attacking was the Constitution of the United States, specifically the First Amendment. That fight continues.

As the gun battle unfolded, an ISIS propagandist who’d encouraged the doomed gunmen offered up a rationale for terrorism—on Twitter.

“Allahu Akbar!!!! 2 of our brothers just opened fire,” tweeted British-born ISIS fighter Junaid Hussain. “If there is no check on the freedom of your speech,” he added, “then let your hearts be open to the freedom of our actions.”

Obviously, this is not a coherent philosophy around which civilization can be organized: You’re free to say what you want—unless I don’t like it, and then I can kill you. It’s not what most Americans would recognize as a legitimate religious tenet, either. It’s fascism, exactly what the organizers of the Garland event were highlighting.

Yet, some commentators—ranging across the spectrum from Chris Matthews to Donald Trump—were quick to point accusing fingers at the organizers of the “Draw Mohammed” event. They literally blamed the victims.

“I wonder whether this group that held this event down there to basically disparage and make fun of the prophet Mohammed doesn’t in some way cause these events,” Matthews said on his MSNBC show. “Well, not the word ‘causing’—how about ‘provoking,’ how about ‘taunting,’ how about ‘daring’?”

His guest, network analyst expert Evan Kohlmann, took the bait. Kohlmann claimed the cartoon event wasn’t really about free speech, but about bigotry instead.

“They’re standing by the principle of hatred of other people,” he said. “That’s their guiding light … They’re intentionally trying to provoke a response from the Muslim community, and unfortunately this was predictable.”

This response is so misguided it seems odd. Chris Matthews is an intelligent man who passionately rejected such reasoning after the Paris murders of Charlie Hebdo’s staff in January. The MSNBC talk show star operates in a country where freedom of speech protects him. If he lived in Iran or Saudia Arabia—and talked on air about the leaders of Iran the way he did about George W. Bush—he’d  be imprisoned or flogged, which Chris fully understands. 

And the terrorism analyst who joined him in condemning the “Draw Mohammed” organizers is no naive academic. Evan Kohlmann is a self-educated expert on Islamism who was galvanized by 9/11. His testimony in government terrorism prosecutions has helped put numerous al-Qaeda operatives in federal prison.

So what’s going on with them, and others critical of the American Freedom Defense Initiative, organizer of the Garland event? I think I know. Although it attracted 350 applicants, most Americans have no desire to look at depictions of Mohammed, let alone draw one. Most of us, myself included, just say, if this is a practice that gives offense, why bother?

There are two problems with that response. The first is that the Texas event wasn’t an unprovoked incitement. It was a response to a series of attacks on free speech that began with Iran’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Others have taken place in Copenhagen, Paris, and even Seattle—where an American cartoonist was forced underground by death threats.

The keynote speaker in Garland was Dutch politician Geert Wilders, a man already on al-Qaeda’s hit list. “The Islamic jihadis are determined to suppress our freedom of speech violently,” explained Pamela Geller, president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative. “They struck in Paris and Copenhagen recently, and now in Texas.”

Her point underscores a second reason why the offending cartoonists must be defended, and not censured: In wartime, choosing the terrain of the fight is rarely an option.

In late 1942, American newsweekly correspondent John Hersey was tramping through the jungles in the Pacific with the U.S. Marines’ 2nd Division. Later, he recounted a whispered conversation with a platoon of Marines on Guadalcanal. What motivated them while they were fighting, he asked. After a pause, one man said quietly, “Jesus, what I’d give for a piece of blueberry pie.”

Briefly, the war correspondent thought the Marine was shifting topics, or perhaps even making light of his question. He wasn’t. He was answering it, quite literally. “Personally, I prefer mince,” another man said. A third chimed in: “Make mine apple with a few raisins in it and lots of cinnamon; you know, Southern-style.”

In a brief book he wrote afterward, “Into the Valley: Marines at Guadalcanal,” Hersey amplified on the meaning of the scene:

“Fighting for pie. Of course that is not exactly what they meant. Here, in a place where they had lived for several weeks on captured Japanese rice ... pie was a symbol of their home.”

“In other places, there are other symbols,” Hersey added. “For certain men, books are the thing; for others music; for others, movies. But for all of them, these things are just badges of home. When they say they are fighting for these things they mean they are fighting for home—‘to get the goddamn thing over with and get home.’

“Perhaps this sounds selfish,” he concluded. “But home seems to most Marines a pretty good thing to be fighting for. Home is where the good things are—the generosity, the good pay, the comforts, the democracy, the pie.”

Seven decades later, we’re still fighting for those “good things,” including democracy. One of liberty’s pillars is freedom of speech. Few would choose Garland, Texas—or drawings of Islam’s revered prophet—as the ideal battlefield. The Marines of the Greatest Generation wouldn’t have chosen Guadalcanal, either. But they went, and they fought, and they won.

In Garland, the winning entry was a black-and-white drawing that shows a cartoonist’s hands sketching a sword-wielding Mohammed, who is shouting, “You can’t draw me!”

A speech bubble relays the cartoonist’s response: “That’s why I draw you.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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