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Here I sit in the comfort of my home, surrounded by picture windows, taking time to write my thoughts about the last few days with Lars Vilks, Swedish artist—a man who has no such luxury. Vilks has been condemned for a pencil drawing he drew of Mohammed depicted as a dog in traffic. The work was pulled from a gallery exhibition in a small Swedish town for fear of Muslim reprisals. The incident and illustration was then published in the local newspapers. Now, an enterprising Jihadi can earn $100,000 for executing Vilks, and get $50,000 extra if a knife is used to do the job.
Two days before his arrival, I learned just how seriously the U.S. law enforcement community assessed the threat to Vilks when I received an urgent call from the hotel where the appearance was to take place. The manager told me there were twenty-five officers representing ten agencies, including FBI, Homeland Security and the Philadelphia Police Department’s SWAT team— there to discuss how they were going to keep Vilks alive during his 40-hour stay. On a threat profile scale of one to ten, with ten being the highest threat, Vilks was a ten.
As Director of the Philadelphia offices of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, I invited Vilks to Philadelphia as part of a North American Tour to commemorate the fifth anniversary of another illustration, by Kurt Westegaard. The Danish Cartoon controversy–sparked by a political cartoon depiction of Mohammed with a ticking time bomb in his Turban—had lead to deaths and executions around the world. When the FBI showed up at my office, and Philly’s top commander of homeland security called my cell phone, I realized that I had no choice but to pull the plug on the public event. Instead I arranged a series of press interviews at an undisclosed location. Were it not for the interest of the press and their wide coverage, silencing Vilks would have marked a win for the Jihad, and another loss for freedom of speech and artistic expression.
Lars Vilks is among a small cadre of everyday people around the world living in unusual times and drawn to acts of social disobedience. Men like Bjorn Larsen in Canada, Lars Hedegaard in Denmark, co-founders of the International Free Press Society defend Vilks and his Danish compatriot, Kurt Westegaard and their right to freedom of expression in a free society. During my two days with Vilks, and Hedegaard who made the trip as well, I learned a great deal about the meaning of courage and overcame any doubts I had about becoming publicly identified with their cause.
Although Vilks himself doesn’t show any outward signs of worry about the price on his head, the Philadelphia’s Joint Terrorism Task Force didn’t overlook any detail or spare any expense to assure his safety. Working with airport police and the TSA, a convoy of FBI, SWAT and Homeland Security officers escorted me to intercept Vilks and Hedegaard as they were disembarking the international flight. They expedited our guests through US Customs to a private area and got us to an unmarked SUV driven by two large SWAT team agents, wearing bullet proof vests under dark suits. Each was armed and in radio contact with other agents along our planned route.
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