[<-- See previous post first -->
Moving away from the current escalation and reflecting again on the murder of Theo van Gogh itself:
"They only burn Jews with sugar illness today"
Fellow columnists of van Gogh are torn, too - between solidarity with their assassinated colleague of the word and their prior revulsion with him as a person. Two out of three commentators seem to start their reaction to the murder with a, "I didn't much like him as a person or what he wrote, personally", before getting round to defend the cause of free speech.
No wonder. After all, notes writer-columnist Remco Campert, this is the man who targeted Jews before his attention was distracted by the Muslim danger - who cracked jokes about "how it smells like caramel here ... they must only burn Jews with sugar illness today". The man who, Bas van Kleef remembers, said that "if anyone deserves cancer, it's [then-Green Left leader] Paul Rosenmoller, the scoutmaster of politically correct Holland". Who in 1989 wrote that he "already looked forward to the day that we have to say goodbye to [TV personality] Henk van der Meyden when, as THEY tell me, the mercy of AIDS will finally, finally close Henk's tired eyes." The man who called an opponent a pig or compared him to Eichmann, who speculated that a Jewish critic must "have wet dreams about getting done by Mengele", and whose interpretation of being thought-provoking was, as he bragged afterwards, to greet Green Left MP Mohammed Rabbae with a "Allah is great, Allah is mighty, he has a cock of one meter eighty".
In short, not someone to all too easily identify with.
One of us or not quite a hero?
In the end, the chips fall both ways. Sylvain Ephimenco, for example, is strident:
"Yes: Theo was crude, intolerable, sometimes vulgar and almost always hurtful. Yes, of course I have cursed him in my columns, like he cursed me. [..] But Theo lived in Our House. His room was on the left at the end of the hall, right across from Campert's. It was noisy inside there, and it sometimes smelled of burnt prose. But I do not feel the need now to head-shakingly peer at the relict of his disorderly abode. Since Tuesday, all I see are the bloodstains on the walls. The impression that his lifeless body has left on the carpet. I realise more than ever that a warrior from the deep darkness has crept into Our House. And that this pimp, sent by a false prophet, to use Theo's terminology, has slaughtered one of us. Slaughtered him methodically and ruthlessly, with unfathomable hate and repulsive fanatism. [..] The droplet in which my mixed feelings could have floated, disappeared soon in the flood of my anger. [T]he more inhabitants want to detract from this assassination with their on the one hands and other hands, the less freedom there will be for us all."
But others are more ambiguous. Expressing scepticism at van Gogh's new "hero of free speech" status, several commentators point out that Van Gogh furiously demanded the right to say whatever he thought - but had no patience for those who tolerated the other
side's scandalous statements. Van Kleef notes the irony of Amsterdam's mayor Job Cohen (van Gogh: "a national-socialist by nature"), observing at the protest meeting that he, too had been told off by van Gogh, but that "that is allowed
in Holland". After all, it was this attitude of 'live and let live' of Cohen's that van Gogh had assaulted so indignantly.
And was van Gogh really such a selfless warrior for the oppressed? Michael Zeeman: "Say, you're a director and you are truly concerned about the fate of those abused [Muslim] women. 'To work', I'd think, make a documentary, talk with those women, inventarise injuries, interview an expert on the sharia, look up those abusive men, foot between the door and camera at the ready, count, compare. Opening night at the festival, broadcast on TV with a debate to follow, enough for a whole Sunday night. Ten to one that something will happen. But no. It could be done faster. [..] You can also wrap a woman in net curtains and make a breathless short film. [..] Of those abused women, I haven't heard anymore in months. But of the makers of the film I have. Every single day."
Stridency versus decency?
In fact, curiously, right alongside the immediate debate on the danger of Islamist violence, a smaller debate has popped up about "decency". Decency, writes Bas van Stokkum, "has the function to maintain peace. Its reticence is not 'undignified', as the proponents of the unfettered free word claim. Good manners allow for a constructive discourse." Van Gogh, he notes, "claimed that he considered a column only successful if readers would be offended. [But] expressing an opinion is something different from just scolding the daylights out of each other." Van Stokkum juxtaposes "the role of common decency" with the prevailing wisdom that "extreme opinions need to be heard", which he submits is "grist to the mill of [..] the poisonous chants of soccer supporters".
NRC Handelsblad columnist Herbert Blankesteijn is equally disinclined to celebrate van Gogh as an example: "Bull. Its not opinions we're talking about. Theo van Gogh called people names. He has been lovingly called 'provocateur' the last few days, but the way he stabbed into people with his words obviously was just beyond the pale. [..] With well-raised Dutchmen, scolding doesn't hurt [..] Van Gogh knew that his victims came from a place where scolding does
hurt. So they'll just have to adapt? Yes, they will. [..] 'We', on the other hand, resolve to watch our words and not just always say what we think and do what we say*. If its not out of decency, then it'll have to be out of fear."
The Christian perspective
This chorus about intercultural sensitivities that need to be dealt with more cautiously is echoed in unexpected quarters: those of devout Christians. The Reformed Daily
, for example, is the most staunchly Protestant newspaper here; it represents the "black-stocking Church" community, which doesn't sport on Sundays, votes for one of the two small Christian fundamentalist parties and considers the possession of a TV sinful - some 4% of the population. Its editor in chief sternly asserts the need to have respect for religion and concludes: "That's what van Gogh made a joke of. And it is incomprehensible that he was nevertheless still welcome in cultural circles. It is there that one should start reflecting on the question whether everything someone thinks should also be allowed to be said out loud."
In fact, when de Volkskrant polls reactions in the Protestant village of Katwijk, it finds people who say that the murder was "to be expected" - like Jacob, the filmmaker should have known that "the tongue can have a deathly venom". "The Lord is no idle observer", a man comments, "He has judged." Van Gogh has "reviled us Christians and Jesus himself too. But Muslims are more fanatic - that, our forefathers already knew when they fought them. They live by fire and sword."
Choosing a middle way in response to the attacks on mosques this weekend, the Amsterdam Council of Churches will declare its solidarity with the Muslim believers in the city in an advertisement that will appear in the city's Parool newspaper. Co-existence of people of many different nationalities and cultural and religious backgrounds demands "of each inhabitant respect and willingness to enter a dialogue", it will say.
And thus the circle is round: from ruthless Islamist extremists to arsonist xenophobes and firebrand right-wing populists, multicultural waverers and bible-thumping moralists. You see what I mean with a bewildering confusion of events, reactions and perspectives? What on earth will happen next?
* A play on Pim Fortuyn's political motto.