I will not revisit my modest point in an earlier post regarding the utility of, or perhaps I should have said substitution to, consumer boycotts for perceived offenses, where domestic governments are disinclined to intervene. Since that post there have been two interesting developments. One is the escalating violence against things associated with Denmark (broadly described), where the cartoons originated, and the other is the continuing disinclination of American newspapers to republish the cartoons, as they weigh obvious newsworthiness and curioisty against the cost of giving offense, and I do not mean violence alone.
The violence is hard for Westerners to fathom, but it is a fact on the ground. At one level it generates the obvious responses. Some think the violence shows just how important free speech is, and how dangerous it is to give an inch to appease the sensibilities behind it, while others think that it is dangerous and insensitive to incite. I do not claim any expertise in resolving this sort of debate. My sense is that it is context-specific and that we rarely know the right level of compromise or principle, in warfare or in anything else. Some of us have strong intuitions on one side or the other (and that too is context specific), but many of us are agnostic. On this matter it is not even easy to be right after the fact.
At another level, we are startled by the tacit support of violence by host governments. In most Western societies, governments are expected to guard their monopoly on force quite carefully. We have our share of extremists, but governments can usually be counted on to clamp down on them when they turn to violence. Extremism can be convenient for governments, and there are plenty of situations where we think that protest rallies that get out of hand play into the hands of some politicians. But before long governments usually have reason to suppress that which they may soon be unable to control. That some countries do not control their Islamic extremists shows the power of these groups, and how much their governments have to fear. This is not good news, but I am not sure it tells us what we or the various governments ought to do. We just wish it were not so.
The Philadelphia Inquirer republished one of the cartoons this weekend, but most U.S. newspapers reported on the controversy and growing violence, but did not show their readers what the fuss was about. At first blush this is surprising because controversy sells newspapers and makes for prize-winning careers. Nor is it clear whether political correctness calls for republication or not. Free speech is and ought to be an extremely popular cause, but sensitivity to Islamic norms is also a politically correct motivator. An optimistic view is that the sight of the dozen cartoons, and even the two most noted ones, would really not accomplish much. I have viewed them and I think a determined reader can still locate them in cyberspace. (Note that the link I originally provided no longer carries the cartoons, claiming that this is out of respect for those who died in the ferry accident in the Red Sea. Apparently, the thought is that these poor passengers and their families would side with those who found the cartoons offensive rather than with those who value free speech.) But when we Westerners view them we are likely to find these cartoons rather tame, and we are apt to be yet more horrified and put off by the violent reactions that they generated. It may be that we simply do not understand the offense. I suspect that many rioters do not understand how offended we are, in turn, by their violence. If so, our inability to understand one another makes it even less likely that we will master the strategic thinking necessary to know when it is wise to compromise and when it is better to draw lines and show strength by refusing to budge.