This piece was originally published in The Huffington Post.
I am grateful to live in a country where even someone as hateful as Pamela Geller can speak her mind. She can smear President Obama as the “jihadist in the White House” and speculate that he “choked up” with tears when he ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden. She can say that Pope Francis’ call for “affection and respect” towards Muslims means he has “become an imam.” She can compare Jewish Americans who support President Obama to Nazi appeasers and call comedian Jon Stewart “the most disgusting Jew on the planet.” She can suggest banning Muslims from becoming airline pilots. She can then claim that anyone who doesn’t want to hear her speak is “enforcing the Sharia.”
I am also grateful to live in a country where the law protects Geller’s right to say these things.
Sunday’s incident, in which two gunmen tried to attack an anti-Islam event that Geller and virulently anti-Muslim Dutch politician Geert Wilders hosted in Texas, was deeply troubling. Our freedom of speech means nothing if people are too afraid to speak. We saw this in a different context earlier this year when Sony pulled a raunchy geopolitical buddy comedy from theaters under threat of terror attacks. Say what you will about Pamela Geller, she has not backed down from any of her vile positions under fear of violence.
But it’s important to remember that the fact that she was attacked for her speech doesn’t make Geller a hero, or her speech any less hateful. As Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall put it yesterday, “a hate group is a hate group the day after someone takes a shot at them just like it was the day before.”
Local Muslim groups had the right idea when they stayed away from Geller’s event,declining to protest so that they wouldn’t give Geller the attention she so desperately wanted. Those who expose her hateful rhetoric — like my PFAW colleagues — also do important work, making sure the public knows that just because she is targeted by violent idiots doesn’t make her a serious thinker or a hero.
I know that Geller won’t back down from her hateful rhetoric after this event– in fact, the attempted attack will probably embolden her and cause some to take her more seriously. And we shouldn’t stop criticizing Geller — or, as she puts it, “enforcing the Sharia” — when she’s wrong.
As People For the American Way wrote in 2009 in response to a renewed spate of inflammatory right-wing rhetoric, Americans must “be willing to use their First Amendment freedoms to challenge those who exploit their political positions or media megaphones to promote lies that are intended to inflame rather than inform, that encourage paranoia rather than participation, and whose consequences are at best divisive and at worst, violently destructive.”