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Free speech should soar above insult and injury

The real clash of ideas is within each culture - over who best represents us.

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It's disturbing to watch bad ideas grow legs. In the deadly firestorm ignited by the Danish cartoons caricaturing Islam, one bad idea - the "clash of civilizations" - seems to have found its feet. The agenda shaping up for this clash - free speech versus Islam - is driven by another bad idea: the "right to offend." Free speech is to represent the best of Western civilization and the Enlightenment, with its most extreme test - and biggest gun - proudly trundled forth: insult and provocation.

As if! As if Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, invasion and occupation of Iraq, and other varieties of "regime change" the West envisions for the Arab world were not offense enough. And how bizarre that offensiveness is held up as civilized, rather than seen as fueling the clash.

Descending to the bait, defenders of offensiveness weigh in across the spectrum. On the left, Art Spiegelman, cartoonist for The New Yorker, asserts in The Nation, "There has to be a right to insult," even if it stirs discomfort. Aligning on the right, William Bennett and Alan Dershowitz castigate Western media for "betraying" their "duty" to republish the Danish cartoons. Meanwhile, contrarian Christopher Hitchens derides "the babyish tantrums" of the Islamic world and "this sickly babble about 'respect.'"

More such ilk doubtless will air in Round 2, when Iran's largest newspaper publishes the "winners" of its Holocaust cartoon contest, and an Israeli paper does likewise with its anti-Semitic contest. The media will again agonize about republishing - and the West's insult-artists can crow again about taking the blows and, unlike those 'babyish' Muslims, not burning down a Starbucks.

This is so sandbox, so sticks-and-stones, and in these tinderbox times so dangerous, like strapping on a suicide belt. Rights come with responsibilities, and it's time to talk about the responsible use of free speech.

Starting with this question to the insult-artists: And your higher point is...?

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