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.
When we arrived at the hotel, other agents were there to greet us, and a set of room keys were ready, a private elevator held for our use. Once in the room, the SWAT team remained standing guard outside the door. This was the routine for the next 40 hours. Our itinerary was shared well in advance, and the K-9 Units were used to sweep the unmarked SUV for bombs before we left the hotel.
This is the price one pays these days for running afoul of the Islamic Jihad. For now, anyway. But it was gratifying to see them in Independence Hall, standing in front of our Liberty Bell, sharing the fraternal bond of individual liberty that our founding fathers fought so hard to enshrine in our Bill of Rights and Constitution.
When the press finally got to the interviews, a common question many had was, if Vilks knew that such an illustration would spark Islamic rage, why do it? In his soft-spoken manner, he explained he was an equal opportunity iconoclast; why should Islam be spared from his artistic criticisms of religion any more than Christians, Jews or Hindus? He has insulted them all.
And the irony is this: While we wonder why he didn’t censor himself, Lars Vilks asks, why do we permit violent Muslims, in a tolerant multicultural society, to threaten critics with death and dismemberment? It’s a good question. The better question.
Standing up to tyranny is a courageous act and heroism often comes from the most unlikely places. Vilks’ drawing was a deliberate protest against artistic and journalistic self-censorship. It was also a notice to the bad guys that its threats are not okay, will not work and will not stand in our culture. We all owe him a debt of gratitude and can thank him by publishing our work and standing up to would-be murderers seeking to intimidate the rest of us into submission.
Create, write, publish, televise, broadcast---whatever---as an expression of your freedom of conscience.
Amusingly, Lars Vilks experiences the entire episode of this controversy as “process art.” To understand this vision, imagine a pebble being dropped into a still pool of water. The pebble drop is the instigating event, in this case, Vilk’s offending illustration; the concentric circles radiate outward in a ripple effect, representing all that we are experiencing throughout the world as a result. Vilks takes it all in, an actor in a morality play of his own design. His next project, he claims, is to make a Fred Astaire-style musical out of it all.
Art is a subversive endeavor, he says, meant to push the boundaries, make us think. Maybe one day we can all sing and laugh about it all. Until then, I will be shaking the trees and rattling the cages of all those around me who take for granted the relative tranquility of our quiet neighborhoods and insulated lives.
Craig Snider is Director of the David Horowitz Freedom Center-Philadelphia.