Kent Bush: Words - like actions - have consequences

Kent Bush

There is a fine line between a tool and a weapon.

A hammer is a very useful tool. Few structures would ever be built without one. If you ever tried to drive a nail with a screwdriver, you have a solid appreciation for hammers.

But in a fit of rage, a hammer can be used in a gruesome attack.

The First Amendment gives all Americans the right to free speech.

Like a hammer, most - but certainly not all - applications of that right are beneficial.

People have a right to express opinions. Others have a right to disagree.

That is truly one of the predominant threads of the American fabric.

John Stuart Mill once said, "If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."

I just wish more people used this basic right with more restraint and wisdom. The difference to me is one of can and should. Just because you can throw yourself in front of a moving train doesn't mean you should.

That's where some people go with free speech. They push the boundaries simply to see them expand while paying no mind to what those widened boundaries may contain when they are finished.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker have made a good living for themselves by producing a crudely drawn and more crudely written cartoon called "South Park" since 1997.

They have pushed the bounds of decency, mockery, blasphemy and obscenity in almost every episode. They have thrived on the word-of-mouth advertising that "you won't believe this" reporting generates.

Their latest controversy came when they took a silly swipe at a paramount tenet of Islam by rendering a depiction of the prophet Mohammed- a violation of a command in the Koran.

The only reason they were doing it was to show that they could. For several years, editorial cartoons in newspapers across the world have inspired controversy in this way. Parker and Stone wanted to tap into that controversy.

A website called posted a poorly veiled threat saying that Parker and Stone were being stupid and "will probably end up like Theo Van Gogh," a Dutch filmmaker who was killed after one of his works accused Islam of condoning violence against women. The post also included a photo of Van Gogh's corpse to clear up any confusion.

The controversy resulted in Comedy Central editing parts of the cartoon in an attempt to make everyone happy. The editing actually made no one happy.

Molly Norris, an artist from Seattle, responded to the controversy by drawing a cartoon calling for May 20 to be celebrated as "Everyone Draw Mohammed Day."

She was trying to make a point but found herself part of something much larger than she could handle.

"I am sort of freaked out about my name/image being all over the place," she has told reporters.

She said she was passionate about what was happening and wanted to do something about it. When the clanging began to resonate, she tried to unring the bell.

She has posted on her website that she is not involved with "Everyone Draw Mohammed Day" any longer.

We have the freedom to speak but words - like actions - often have consequences.

Rush Limbaugh, after he heard that Bill Clinton had spoken about the 15th anniversary of Oklahoma City bombing last week, worried that no one had held ceremonies honoring the ATF raid on the Branch Davidians compound in Waco, Texas, two years earlier.

Equating a terrorist attack that claimed 168 lives and a poorly handled raid on a compound that led to a cult leader killing himself and about 80 others when they could have ended the incident peacefully at any time during the two-month-long standoff is offensive.

Limbaugh wondered why no one had recognized that anniversary, which he blamed on incompetence of the Clinton administration rather than a demagogue who had sexually abused minors and collected almost $200,000 worth of weapons.

Limbaugh has a right to his statements - even though the only reason he made them was to poke Clinton in the eye one more time.

Limbaugh knows that a Republican-led $10 million government study revealed "with 100 percent certainty" that the Davidians lit the fatal fires themselves. He also knows that a wrongful-death suit ruled in favor of the government agents despite the horrible outcome of the actions.

The problem with his comments is that the people who blew up the Alford P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City were marking that anniversary when they perpetrated their act of domestic terrorism. I don't encourage that kind of observance.

Most of these controversial comments are made with tongues planted firmly in cheek.

However, whether you are picking a fight with all Muslims or just taking a side against anything Bill Clinton says, you have to choose wisely if you should say everything you can say.

Kent Bush is publisher of the Augusta (Kan.) Gazette.

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the newspaper.