Making the rounds lately is the news that an atheist in a Zombie Mohammed costume got smacked around by an upset muslim. There are a variety of reactions to it so far, ranging mostly from "This is a violation of First Amendment rights!" to "This is just showing the further islamicization of American law!"
Allow me to add my own reaction to the mix.
There. Got that out of my system. More below.
Sorry, but I'm just not taking this the same way everyone else seems to. I suppose in a big picture sense, or even in an abstract sense, someone could find a lot to be upset about here. But let's take a good look at what went on.
An atheist and his friend decide to dress up as a Zombie Pope and Zombie Mohammed. Now, I'm willing to bet you anything the atheist knows that merely showing Mohammed's image is offensive and blasphemous to muslims, and this is precisely why he chose his costume to begin with. Except a muslim happens to see him wearing it. A muslim who, apparently, takes his beliefs quite seriously. And whose response is to rip up his costume and knock him around on sight. They end up in court, and the judge basically tells the atheist he had it coming for acting like an obnoxious little shit.
Okay, put aside the animated gifs of crying eagles superimposed on American flags for a moment. This is not really a serious first amendment issue. Really, if this guy were dressed up as Zombie Whitney Houston shortly after her death and he got his ass beat because people found that offensive, would we be seeing everyone playing amateur constitutional scholar? Or would the reaction, if not one of indifference, be "Well, he was pretty much asking for it now wasn't he?" Really, pick an array of very similar acts and that would be the standard. But apparently religious beliefs are uniquely serious. When a man behaves like a jackass regarding those, there's some instinct to be all solemn and serious about it. Not about the belief or even the believer, but about the insult.
So no thank you, I'll pass on the fake seriousness and misplaced patriotism.
Now, let's be clear. If this was a case of someone - atheist or otherwise - delivering a serious and civil argument as to why Islam is wrong, or why Mohammed should not be respected, I wouldn't blow off the result. If someone were beaten up merely because it was known or suspected that they personally had a low opinion of Mohammed, I'd take this more seriously. But no, I do not elevate crass mockery and blasphemy - especially the sort expressly crafted to piss off a target group - to a level I even have to take seriously, much less to something I consider to be a major first amendment issue. All that happened here was that a jackass decided to be a jackass at the wrong time and place, and it bit him in the ass.
At the same time, I'm not blind to the deeper questions one could wring out of this event which are not only serious, but complicated. Am I saying that when a person acts in an intentionally belligerent and offensive manner that all bets are off and the reaction can be deadly? No. Nor am I saying that "I'm offended!" is a license for fisticuffs - wow, wouldn't that be exploitable. Does this mean I'm on board with hate crime legislation? Absolutely not. But clearly I think it's not only no big deal what Mister Mohammed-Zombie had done to him, but I'm admittedly sympathetic to his assailant. Surely I'm not suggesting that this be some kind of legal policy? Again, no - I have no idea how you could codify what are or are not "fighting words", so to speak. On the other hand, I think the very suggestion that any and all speech - from hardcore pornography to in-your-face insults and slurs, aimed at your person, your family, your culture or your deepest beliefs - is the stuff of utter sacredness, is an insipid claim. This is as complicated a subject as they come.
But it's even worse than that. We live in an age where "Hate Speech" enforcement already exists, along with "hate crime" laws. I am convinced shockingly few people really take the first amendment seriously, and instead they (and this is something Christians, God bless them, seem to not fully appreciate) insincerely invoke 'free speech' largely to protect speech they either approve of, or think will net benefit them to promote. (Those Westboro Baptist shits come to mind. I swear, one of these days it's going to be revealed that they're on a LGBSA payroll.) Meanwhile, speech they dislike ends up branded as 'hate speech', or fake appeals to the separation of Church and State are called upon with minimal sincerity. Put simply, the entire issue is a cluster**** as is, which makes it doubly hard for me to so easily take seriously an event like this, as if some clear breach of some universally respected standard took place.
So, in the face of such a tremendously complicated, serious issue, along with the recognition that the state of political discussion on such topics has become utterly tribal and insincere, what should someone do? My response is, be practical. And in a practical sense, this atheist was a complete idiot who was trying to piss people off. And good for him - he succeeded, to the point where someone ripped up his outfit and smacked him around. And a judge decided that no, the first amendment probably isn't most reasonably interpreted to mean "Act like a dickhead at will and never expect a physical reaction", and refused to take his complaint seriously. Even if "Punch someone who offends you" isn't the best legal policy, in this particular case, it seems like justice enough.
Which leads me back to my first response. An atheist gravely insulted a muslim and got punched in the head for his efforts? Funny stuff. In the words of Pontius Pilate from the Last Temptation of Christ (speaking of blasphemy), "perhaps he will learn a lesson."
"No. Probably not."