The sharper the speech — the harder it pokes at something dear to someone else — the greater the chance of a strong reaction.
Speech is a substitute for fighting, protected because it’s preferable to actual violence. You have an absolute right in this country to draw cartoons that are offensive to other people, but nobody has the right to shoot you for it.
On Sunday night in Garland, the reaction was criminal: Two armed men from Arizona shot and wounded a security guard and were in turn shot and killed by a Garland police officer. A group called the American Freedom Defense Initiative was wrapping up its Muhammad Art Exhibit, which featured a contest for artists drawing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims consider any depiction — cartoon or not — to be blasphemous.
Police and exhibit organizers were prepared Sunday, having done a lot of preparatory work that included extra officers on duty at the community center where the event occurred.
They later found out that the two attackers were from Phoenix and that one of them had been convicted in 2011 for lying to the FBI during an investigation of whether he was a terrorist. According to The New York Times, he was under investigation recently after posting about the Islamic State on social media.
Most Texas politicians reacted to the whole thing with reserve, praising police, expressing relief over the safety of the 200 people who attended the exhibit and deploring the actions of the attackers.
Because of the way politics and culture — and religion, if you want to separate it — intertwine, public debate is about provocations and reactions. Look at Bastrop, where some good old-fashioned paranoia about a routine military exercise goosed the governor into sending in the Texas State Guard to watch things. “During the training operation, it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed,” Gov. Greg Abbott wrote.
Aside from that cautionary note, he was full of praise for the U.S. military. Abbott said Monday that the people in Bastrop had questions, and so he sent in the Guard. The people worried about the U.S. military saw that the governor was there for them, and so did everyone else.
Lots of arguments now before the Texas Legislature and the court prompt this sort of cultural and political call-and-answer, if not the violence that attended the cartoon contest: same-sex marriage, pre-kindergarten programs, required vaccinations, school choice and vouchers, proposed minimum wage increases, the Tea Party itself.
Presidential campaigns, like the one now underway, are a kind of accelerant for the culture fires. The strange pronouncements from candidates already well-known to voters are bad enough, but others in the pack are trying to get noticed. And the easiest way to get noticed is to do or say something unusual enough to attract attention. That’s a precarious way to make public policy.
Credit the current debate over in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants to the last presidential race. The idea was popular enough in Texas when a conservative Legislature passed it and a Republican governor signed it. But Rick Perry stumbled over it in the GOP primary four years ago. Everybody noticed. And what was a nearly consensus issue in Texas is now dividing the current Legislature.
Other interests who aren’t involved directly in the culture wars have stolen some of these tricks, trying to get people outside the Legislature talking about their issues in ways that will influence the people inside, like selling cars on the internet (Tesla), opening up the state’s liquor laws to allow more people to sell booze (Wal-Mart) or allowing people sell rides to strangers without getting cab licenses (Uber and Lyft).
Few things are more powerful in politics than strong emotions. People are constantly auditioning for a role in the culture wars, trying to move their objects of scorn or delight in front of everybody else’s. They want their thing to be the thing everyone is talking about, short of a fistfight.
The people who met in Garland were demonstrating their free speech rights in a way that is completely within their rights. They did it in a provocative way, hoping to spark a reaction that would put what they care about in the public eye.
They certainly didn’t want shooting to break out, but they did set out, in a lawful way, to be disagreeable. That’s why they had extra police on hand. You can deplore the result without being surprised by it.
Disclosure: Tesla, Wal-Mart, Uber and Lyft are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.