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Who's afraid of 'South Park'?

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 Amsterdam, to the bustling street where, in plain daylight four years ago, a man called 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 in the website RevolutionMuslim.com, he threatened a fate equal to what befell Van Gogh's for the creators of "South Park," the animated cartoon that makes a point to offend just about everyone. According to Revolution Muslim, a "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 explains that 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 officials heavily censored the cartoon, granting the blackmailer exactly what he wanted. Forget Land of the Free, etc. They gave up without even considering a fight.

Jon Stewart, the Comedy Central faux anchorman, regaled viewers with a musical number carrying a message to Revolution Muslim. Marveling at the extremists' chutzpah for living in New York — home of the world's best Jewish delis — enjoying American freedoms, only to threaten "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker and their freedom of expression, Stewart sang a feverish rendition of "Go F— Yourselves," complete with gospel choir.

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

Yes, they can do it. 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, the rich and powerful corporation (Viacom) could have really protected them, protected their safety and their freedom of speech and their ability to do their work and to give Americans their often-hilarious and frequently cringe-worthy material. 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. 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" in their tastelessness, discovered that his pen was no match for a killer's sword. And yet the pen — the keyboard, the comedian, the editorial cartoon, Bart Simpson, Cartman, Kyle, Kenny — they actually hold enormous power. To win, however, they need their backers to show backbone. Too bad the "South Park" bosses have none.

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