Theo Van Gogh was an unlikable sort, if you ask me. He derived a lot of pleasure from attacking orthodoxy and mocking any convictions other than his own. And since Dutch society doesn’t have a lot of orthodoxy left — and, until Van Gogh’s death, it was pretty short on conviction, too — he had to work extra hard to scrape the last bits in the jar.
When a Dutch columnist wrote that “every Christian is a criminal,” Mr. Van Gogh raced to the columnist’s defense, declaring that the only people who could be offended by such stuff were members of “the fan club of that rotting fish in Nazareth.” He liked to make Holocaust jokes. He was a slob, a provocateur, a gadfly.
He also died something of a hero. Or, if not a hero, a martyr. And if not a martyr, perhaps at least he was a particularly noteworthy canary in the coalmine Western civilization has found itself in.
If you haven’t heard, Van Gogh was butchered by a middle-class Muslim fanatic who took offense at Van Gogh’s views on Islam. In particular, Mohammed B. — authorities won’t release his full name — was angered by Van Gogh’s depiction of Muslim violence against women in a documentary.
Mohammed B. shot Van Gogh while he was riding his bike. Crashing to the ground, Van Gogh squirmed as Mohammed B. approached him. The director pleaded “Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Have mercy. Have mercy!” Mohammed B. didn’t. He shot him eight or nine time and then tried to behead him. He finished by “pinning” a note to Van Gogh’s chest with a knife. The letter apparently threatened other Dutch public figures and contained the usual rhetoric about infidels, jihad and whatnot. The Dutch Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner said the suspect “acted out of radical Islamic fundamentalist convictions.” Mohamed B has been connected with an international Islamist cell.
Now, I know it’s not nice to speak ill of the dead, but I think it’s important to be honest about Van Gogh: He was a certain sort of person I tend to detest. But there is a category of person I detest more: religious zealots who behead people in the street because they disagree with them, even as the victim begs for mercy with his last breaths.
Actually, I should modify that. I don’t care if they’re religious zealots or not. I just dislike all zealots who commit premeditated butchery without mercy. If the victim had been a priest and the murderer had been someone who detested all members of the “fan club of that rotting fish in Nazareth,” I would be at least equally as appalled, probably even more so since priests are, well, priests.
Of course, the wonderful versatility of Islamic fundamentalism, “Jihadism” or whatever you want to call it, is that they hate both radical libertarian atheists and devout Christians and Jews. This is an important point. You see, they hate the West in all its incarnations. They hate the secular, supposedly “tolerant” multicultural West, and they hate the West that finds its roots and inspiration in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And, it’s worth noting, that the secular West liberals love so dearly would have been impossible without the religious traditions they now find so discomfiting.
The notion of a secular society was born of the violence and turmoil of Europe’s religious wars. Since neither Catholics nor Protestants could successfully obliterate or convert the other, European elites decided to carve some social space for life outside religion. Tolerance was in effect a form of ceasefire. And modern Western secularism grew out of this ceasefire. It has become the political consensus our societies operate under.
Holland has taken that consensus for granted. Liberty has turned into licentiousness, and tolerance for dissenters has become little more than rank relativism and nihilism. All perspectives are equally valid, which means no perspective is truly valid.
One person who realized this was Pym Fortuyn, a liberal politician — and homosexual — who recognized that continuing immigration of Muslims into secular Dutch society threatened the liberty, and licentiousness, he so valued. Fortuyn was a liberal in his understanding of public policy, but a true conservative in his desire to preserve the society he cherished. Either way, he was murdered for his views by a deranged animal rights activist who was offended by Fortuyn’s lack of “tolerance.” Mr. Van Gogh, a fan of Mr. Fortuyn, was murdered for fleshing out Fortuyn’s argument.
What Mr. Fortuyn understood and what Mr. Van Gogh’s murder illustrated is that Western society has an Achilles’ heal. When openness requires respect for perspectives, that means that even those who want to destroy our openness deserve respect. Mr. Van Gogh may have been a detestable man by my standards, but he understood that words are different from bullets. Therefore, he deserved only words in response. Mohammed B., on the other hand, represents a view which deserves no tolerance and no space. I do not mean Islam per se, of course, but the splinter cult of Jihadism (to which mainstream Islam shows too much tolerance). Nevertheless, Holland has discovered that it cannot tolerate those who would call off the ceasefire.
Jonah Goldberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.