So much about the rottenness of a culture and a brand of politics can be told from the matter of whom people blame. Strong cultures which know themselves do not find it hard to discern the difference between a firefighter and a fire. Weak, confused and fearful cultures lack any such ability.
If someone carries out a terrorist attack, they worry: Is the attacker to blame or are the victims? When a country suffers an outrage, are the people who carried out that outrage to blame, or might it be the fault of the country which has been subjected to the assault?
After 9/11, there were infamous examples of people claiming that America had "brought it upon itself." The Cambridge classics professor, Mary Beard, writing in the London Review of Books, famously commented, "However tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming." People will remember the infamous Ward Churchill's claim that it was the people in the Twin Towers who were "little Eichmanns," not the people who flew the planes into those towers.
When whole countries get the blame for attacks on themselves it is bad enough. But infinitely worse – because there is none of the solidarity available with which a country can console itself – is when an individual is blamed for what has happened to him. In particular, when what happened was an attempt on his life – whether failed or "successful."
When the Dutch politician, Pim Fortuyn, was murdered just before the elections in 2002, it was claimed that he had "provoked" people. The same was said of Theo van Gogh when he was murdered on an Amsterdam street in 2004: people said that he had brought it upon himself or even, amazingly, planned his death this way.
Shortly after van Gogh's murder, Index on Censorship, an organization which – as it name suggests – ought to be opposed to the ultimate censorship, published a piece by one of its staff; he claimed that van Gogh was a "free-speech fundamentalist" on a "martyrdom operation," and guilty of an "abuse of his right to free speech." Who knew that we were all meant to be in lock-step? Could anybody tell us who the central committee members are, who might be able to let us know which opinions we are or are not allowed to hold and express?
The same was said of Theo van Gogh's film-making partner, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, when she had to go into hiding from people who wanted to kill her. It was said of the Danish cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard, after an axe-wielding Somali man broke into his house. It was said of Flemming Rose, and Lars Vilks, of Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali and many, many more. These were all people who either suffered violence or were threatened with violence. And all were treated by substantial numbers of commentators as being not victims but perpetrators. Not the ones who had suffered, but as the ones who had brought suffering down upon themselves. In each and every instance, there were prominent figures around in the media and politics who declared that all these people had been "provocative."
Now there has been an attempt on the life of Lars Hedegaard. On the February 5, this mild-mannered and scholarly journalist and historian was visited at his home in Denmark by a twenty-something, immigrant-looking youth, who fired at the 70 year-old's head. The first bullet missed; Hedegaard hit his assailant on the head, causing him to drop the gun. When the assailant picked up the gun and fired it again, the gun jammed and the would-be assassin ran away. He has not yet been found.
Then, of course, the excuses started. The attack was reported across the world's media. Prominent in the reports were claims that Hedegaard is an "Islam-critic." Others in the media, including the BBC, disgracefully reported that Hedegaard had been tried two years ago for hate-speech, but all failed to note in their initial reports that he had also been unanimously acquitted of this supposed offence. These journalistic slips were bad enough. Far worse was to come.
In a number of papers, particularly in the country which is swift becoming the home of the world's most illiberal media – Sweden – the stakes were raised higher. In their reports of the incident, the Swedish media referred to Hedegaard as an "enemy of Islam." Others referred to him in even more hostile terms.
You really do have to rub your eyes. These are not the Saudi papers or the Tehran Daily News running these smears – they are allegedly "liberal" papers in an allegedly "liberal" country in an allegedly "liberal" democracy. Perhaps, then, these people can answer something:
Since when is criticizing Islam a crime? Since when was defending the rights of writers, journalists and artists to say, write and draw what they like a crime? And since when did any self-respecting journalist take the view that the media's job should be to act as the scouting parties and after-the-fact-exculpators for anti-free-speech assassins?
This game of blaming the victim, of smearing the person who has suffered a grievous abuse, has gone on long enough. As Pim Fortuyn said just before his assassination: "it has to stop." But it has not stopped. It has gone on as a cowardly media in our cowardly culture has gone on and on trying to blame the firemen for starting the fire, so scared are these "brave" media of the sight of flames.
There is, however, a rare piece of good news in Europe. Lars Hedegaard is once again fighting back. It was announced last week that he is going to sue the Swedish media for libel. I hope – along with all decent people who believe the media should be more than the warm-up and PR wing of the jihad – that he takes them to the cleaners.