Thursday, March 30, 2006

Executives at Borders Group Inc., parent company to Borders and Waldenbooks stores, aren’t known to censor the newspapers and magazines the chain carries, much less adhere to Islamic law. Its recent decision to decline the April/May issue of Free Inquiry magazine over the Danish Muhammad cartoons is neither of those, but clearly it is a capitulation.

Borders has carried this highbrow Albany, N.Y.-based title since the mid-1980s. Published by the Council for Secular Humanism, Free Inquiry runs the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Peter Singer; it reads like its title suggests. It’s only sensible that a magazine which publishes “C.S. Lewis’s Hideous Weakness” or “Morality without Religion” would also want to comment, with illustration, on the Danish cartoon affair.

When Borders announced its decision this week, the chain cited security. “For us, the safety and security of our customers and employees is a top priority, and we believe that carrying this issue could challenge that priority,” Borders Group spokeswoman Beth Bingham told the Associated Press. “We absolutely respect our customers’ right to choose what they wish to read and buy and we support the First Amendment, and we absolutely support the rights of Free Inquiry to publish the cartoons. We’ve just chosen not to carry this particular issue in our stores.”

If this type of deference to radical Islam becomes a pattern, it will have a profound chilling effect on the publishing industry. It will be harder and harder to publish material which discomfits radical Islamists.

“They’re claiming it’s safety and security, but there’s been no violence” in the United States over the cartoon affair, editor Tom Flynn told The Washington Times yesterday, calling the move “disingenuous.” If not disingenuous, it certainly is squeamish: Even at the height of the cartoon flap, a nonviolent protest outside the Philadelphia Inquirer’s offices was the height of activity here.

In any event, Borders already sold a blasphemous Free Inquiry in 1999, Mr. Flynn points out. Borders had no problem selling Vol. 20, No. 1, which features Muhammad prominently on the magazine’s cover.

Clearly, times have changed, and many businesses have become wary of even remote risks. But if corporations expect even liberal American magazine readers to self-censor in the face of radical Islam, clearly something is wrong in the state of risk assessment.

Just a few years ago Americans were asking what sacrifices they could make to help defeat radical Islam. Here’s an instance where a corporation could sacrifice a little of its sense of comfort for that goal.

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