Free to Offend


A religious dictator takes offense at a skeptical novel, ordering the murder of its author and those involved in its publication and sale.

Instead of being outraged, the civilized world cringed in fear. The Bush administration responded lamely that the threat was "regrettable." Major U.S. bookstore chains removed the book, fearing terrorist attacks. U.S. and British commentators said the author brought his troubles on himself, and his French publisher declined to issue the French translation.

Days later, when the enormity of Khomeini's threat had sunk in, official positions hardened. Book-chain executives returned the book to their shelves and the State Department harrumphed properly. But why the wimpish initial response?

Perhaps the captains of industry and government are deficient in history. They so take for granted the separation of church and state that they find it hard to believe a religious fanatic head-of-state can mean what he says when he orders up the murder of "blasphemers." Yet for centuries the unity of church and state—and the state's duty to persecute "heretics"—was equally taken for granted.

For 342 years the government of Spain, in league with the Catholic Church, tortured, exiled, and murdered thousands of people whose only crime was refusing to profess or practice the official religion. At various times in Reformation-era Britain, professing Catholicism (or Puritanism) was a heretical offense for which people were burned alive. Britain only abolished capital punishment for religious crimes in 1677. And it was only 300 years ago that 19 "witches" were hanged in our own Salem, Massachusetts.

The crime for which all these innocents paid with their lives—and for which Ayatollah Khomeini wants to snuff out Salman Rushdie's life—is blasphemy. Operationally, this means denying the religious tenets that other people hold dear.

While it's easy for us moderns to feel smug, it is sobering to recall that as recently as 1811, a New York state judge upheld a common-law conviction for blasphemy, the First Amendment notwithstanding. Even more frightening, a court in Britain, which still has an established church, convicted a man of blasphemy in 1978.

Indeed, the spirit of Khomeini is alive and well in some of our own religious rightists. Columnist John Lofton, commenting on the Rushdie affair, lamented the decline of blasphemy laws and called for their return, even to the point of making profanity unlawful.

Lofton and his spritual allies Donald Wildmon and Edwin Meese do not favor killing those whose publications offend them. But they do call for using the force of government to punish them. In Meese's case, that included using the vague RICO law to seize the entire inventory of a store that stocked anything deemed "obscene"—and throwing the owners in jail.

Salman Rushdie, in his defense, objected to those who compared his book to pornography and argued that both should be banned. "The giving of offense cannot be a basis for censorship, or freedom of expression would perish instantly."

But that is precisely the point. Freedom is indivisible. If individuals have the right to liberty, there can be no crime of blasphemy, just as there can be no crime of obscenity. One may condemn giving offense to others, but one may not use force to compel them to desist.