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'South Park' vs. the sword

Comedy Central has given violent fanatics another victory over free expression.

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands - Despite much-quoted claims to the contrary, evidence abounds that the sword frequently defeats the pen. If you don't believe me, come to the bustling street in this city where, in plain daylight four years ago, a man named Mohammed Bouyeri cut the throat of Theo Van Gogh, almost severing his head.

The Dutch-born Bouyeri plunged a knife into Van Gogh's body, skewering into him a letter threatening to also kill Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a fierce critic of Islam who had collaborated with Van Gogh on a film about the Quran. The killer, it seems, did not like the film.

Another, similarly disposed art critic brought up Van Gogh's name a few days ago in the United States. Writing on the Web site, he threatened a fate equal to what befell Van Gogh's for the creators of South Park, the animated Comedy Central series that makes it a point to offend just about everyone. According to Revolution Muslim, a recent South Park episode depicting the prophet Muhammad (in a bear suit, along with figures from other religions) is a crime punishable by death.

Quoting Islamic scholars, Revolution Muslim explained, "Whoever curses the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessing of Allah be upon him) - a Muslim or a non-Muslim - he must be killed and this is the opinion of the general body of Islamic scholars."

While most Muslims would not shed blood over a comedy show, we have known for a good many years that among the followers of Islam, there are those who would kill anyone - even another Muslim - who offends their religious sensibilities. That is not news.

What we learned from the South Park event, however, is just as troubling. In the face of threats, the bosses at Comedy Central folded like cheap TV trays. Comedy Central heavily censored the cartoon, granting such blackmailers exactly what they want.

Forget land of the free, etc. The channel gave up without even considering a fight.

Comedy Central faux anchorman Jon Stewart recently regaled viewers with a musical number carrying a message to Revolution Muslim. Marveling that the extremists have the chutzpah to live in New York - home of the world's best Jewish delis - and enjoy American freedoms while threatening South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker and their freedom of expression, Stewart sang a feverish rendition of "Go F- Yourselves," complete with backup gospel choir.

But Stewart went curiously easy on Comedy Central's spinelessness. "It's their right," he allowed. "The censorship is a decision Comedy Central made to protect their employees."

Yes, it's the channel's right to do so. But that doesn't make it any less scandalous. Comedy Central should have hired bodyguards for Stone and Parker and aired the episode uncut. That way, Viacom, the rich and powerful corporation that owns Comedy Central, could have really protected them - protected their safety and their freedom of speech and their ability to do their often-hilarious and frequently cringe-worthy work.

It goes without saying - but let's say it anyway - that nobody is required to watch the show. Not Muslims, not Mormons - whose theology South Park mercilessly mocks. Not Jews, not Christians, not patriotic Americans, who might have seen an episode showing Jesus defecating on the American flag.

The show often goes over the line. Those who find it offensive can change the channel. They can write letters, start boycotts, picket the studios. But death threats are simply not acceptable. Caving in to them is shameful.

Too many times in the West, we have seen powerful media empires behave like craven weaklings. It was Bart Simpson, aptly, who put it best, writing a hundred times on the blackboard: "South Park - We'd stand beside you if we weren't so scared."

A few years ago, after extremists threatened (and later attempted) to kill a Danish cartoonist for depicting Muhammad in his work, I saw the artist interviewed on CNN, my once-proud home. When the cartoonist tried to hold up a page with the drawings, CNN almost tackled the camera to the ground to keep the pictures from airing. Cowardice was never so pathetically hilarious.

Theo Van Gogh, whose antics occasionally resembled South Park's in their tastelessness, discovered that his pen was no match for a killer's sword. And yet, the pen - the keyboard, the comedian, and the editorial cartoon; Bart, Cartman, Kyle, and Kenny - actually holds enormous power. To win, however, it needs its backers to show backbone. Too bad South Park's have none.