Freedom and intimidation

The last time Molly Norris was in the news was July. She's the Seattle cartoonist who responded to censorship of South Park by declaring April 20 to be "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day." South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone wrote an episode making fun of the fact that you can't portray Mohammed on television anymore. The episode was scrubbed by Comedy Central -- even though Mohammed wasn't depicted. His non-appearance appearances were erased and verbal references were bleeped. All previous episodes featuring Mohammed were removed from the internet. Oh, and an American man, since arrested on terror-related charges, suggested that Parker and Stone might end up brutally murdered the way Dutch politician Theo Van Gogh was.

So Norris shows some solidarity with these victimized cartoonists. Outrage ensued -- protests, riots, you name it. She quickly backtracked and explained she didn't mean to offend. Too late, Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki declared, putting her on an execution hitlist. From July in the New York Daily News:

The Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki - the radical who's also been cited as inspiring the Fort Hood, Tex., massacre and the plot by two New Jersey men to kill U.S. soldiers - singled out artist Molly Norris as a "prime target," saying her "proper abode is Hellfire."

It occurs to me that the New York Daily News uses the same word to describe terrorists such as Anwar al-Awlaki and First Amendment protesters. I demand better descriptors!

So how does someone respond to a death threat from al-Awlaki? The Seattle Weekly, where she used to be published, has the latest. And it's not good:

You may have noticed that Molly Norris' comic is not in the paper this week. That's because there is no more Molly.

The gifted artist is alive and well, thankfully. But on the insistence of top security specialists at the FBI, she is, as they put it, "going ghost": moving, changing her name, and essentially wiping away her identity. She will no longer be publishing cartoons in our paper or in City Arts magazine, where she has been a regular contributor. She is, in effect, being put into a witness-protection program--except, as she notes, without the government picking up the tab. It's all because of the appalling fatwa issued against her this summer, following her infamous "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" cartoon.

The articles goes on to say the woman formerly known as Norris views it like having cancer -- "it might basically be nothing, it might be urgent and serious, it might go away and never return, or it might pop up again when she least expects it."

From the beginning, I've found it easy to place myself in Norris' shoes. She's a young female journalist from the Western part of the United States. And yet I can't imagine what she must be going through. Her entire life has been upended. She's lost her name, her livelihood, her freedom. This is a horrifying story, and one that demonstrates the importance of fighting for certain values. How can society help this woman and others like her who stand up for freedom of speech and of the press? Of the right to criticize any religion one wants to?

And how much more do we need to understand about this conflict, and how to resolve it or otherwise handle it? We need much more and much better reporting to explain this thuggery and what role religion plays in that thuggery -- not just with folks like al-Awlaki but everyone else, too. What about non-violent Muslims, how does their religion inform their response to stories like this? And what about Christians, Jews, the unaffiliated and others for whom such stories are more foreign? Religion plays a role here, too -- a complex, historical one that needs not be hidden.

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