Kurt Westergaard and I were successive winners of the Danish Free Press Society's Sappho Award. I was very flattered to find myself in his company, but couldn't honestly say I deserved to be. Kurt was one of the bravest men of our time - not because he was inclined to bravery, but simply because, when it was required, he met the challenge and never backed down.
Sixteen years ago Flemming Rose of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten decided to conduct a thought experiment in public after an author casually revealed that he couldn't find any Danish artist willing to illustrate his book about "the Prophet Mohammed" (as the BBC now routinely styles him). So Flemming called twelve cartoonists and invited them to depict the late Prophet. Kurt Westergaard's cartoon was the memorable one, and the one you recall as the years roll by. It was a pithy visual jest: Mohammed's turban as a bomb with a lit fuse. See picture at top right.
"I attempted to show that terrorists get their spiritual ammunition from parts of Islam, and with this spiritual ammunition, and with dynamite and other explosives, they kill people," Kurt told my old newspaper The National Post a few years back. "I showed this in a cartoon and what happened? They want to kill me, so I think I was right."
An otherwise courtly, cultured Dane, Kurt Westergaard had a somewhat arresting dress code, preferring le rouge et le noir, the colors of anarchists, although, as a practical matter, it's hard for a man of advanced years to carry off red trousers, whatever his motivation. He would qualify his pantaloons by explaining that he was not a political anarchist but a cultural one. Still, one can gather from the garb alone that Westergaard was no "right-winger". Like most of the men and women I have shared a stage with in Europe this century, he was an old Sixties radical sufficiently principled to think the same kind of jokes he'd applied to church, monarchy, parliament and every other societal institution should also be applied to Islam. He never wanted to be a "free speech hero", but gamely bore the burthen once it had been dropped on him. He certainly never wanted to be world-famous, albeit more so in Mogadishu than Manhattan and Lahore than Los Angeles. It cost him a comfortable retirement, weakened his health, and an ever more craven culture denied him the consolations of monetary exploitation. When I expressed sympathy, he laughed and said he'd do the same cartoon all over again even knowing what he was in for.
The blood lust began with a trio of imams on the make shopping the twelve cartoons (plus three cruder fakes) round the Muslim world, and leaving it to the usual Islamonutters to take it from there: In nothing flat, over two hundred people were dead - which meant that CNN & Co were obliged to cover the story. They did so by modifying Westergaard's cartoon, with Mohammed's face pixilated, as if he'd entered the witness protection programme. If only. In reality, it was that dwindling band of people who believe in free speech - and, indeed, free speech itself - that found itself in the witness protection programme.
For the cartoonists, the death threats were very real. In 2008 the PET (the Danish secret service) arrested two Tunisians and a Moroccan for a well-advanced plot to murder Westergaard. Politicians of all stripes denounced the attack, and seventeen Danish papers reprinted all the Mohammed cartoons - a united stand for press freedom that the useless wankers of the Anglo-American media have never been moved to take.
Afterwards, PET were Kurt's constant companions. They have provided my protection on all my recent visits to Denmark, and they can be mordantly amusing company. But I would not wish to live with them 24/7.
The Westergaard home was fitted with cameras, reinforced windows, steel doors and a "panic room". On New Year's Day 2010 Kurt was playing with his five-year-old granddaughter when he noticed that a 28-year-old axe-wielding Somali had materialized in his front hall. He got the girl to the panic room, and he did not panic, notwithstanding the intruder hacking away at the door while yelling "Revenge!" and "Blood!" In the fullness of time the authorities arrived to shoot the Somali with an axe to grind.
And so it went on. On the fifth anniversary of the cartoons, I was being interviewed in Copenhagen by Flemming Rose and his colleagues when we were alerted that a one-legged Chechen had accidentally self-detonated in his hotel room en route to blow them up. Whenever I tell this story, the phrase "one-legged Chechen" always gets a laugh, although it is in fact no laughing matter hopping across an hotel room with a homemade bomb. But these guys are always a laughingstock, aren't they? Until, as at Charlie Hebdo, they finally pull it off.
For Kurt Westergaard, the death threats kept coming, and the broader culture's support for freedom of expression faded away - to the point where, ten years on, not only did Jyllands-Posten itself forbear to republish the cartoons, but the swank Copenhagen restaurant hosting the Danish Free Press Society's post-event supper saw the PET guys arriving ahead of us, put two and two together, and canceled our dinner reservations. The last decade has been one long accelerating global retreat on the freedom-of-expression front, from a freespeecher's inability to get served a crappy pasta dish to Yale University Press declining to show the Mohammed cartoons even in a book about the Mohammed cartoons. And all this before ChiCom-19 got the entire concept of dissenting views reconfigured as "misinformation".
For a sense of Kurt Westergaard's attitude to his unwanted celebrity, here he is on Canadian telly with Michael Coren. And I hardly need add that Michael Coren wouldn't conduct such an interview today:
To the end of his life, al-Qa'eda and its affiliates had a combined eight-figure bounty on Kurt Westergaard's head. His death, a day after his eighty-sixth birthday, prompted a few Scandinavian chums to assure me that he'd had the last laugh - that now no jihadist would ever collect those multi-millions.
Maybe. But the excitable Mohammedans aren't really the issue; the unexcitable west is. On the home front we are remorselessly trading core liberties for a supposed quiet life and congratulating ourselves for doing so. The most lauded cartoonist in America, Garry Trudeau, took it upon himself - in prepared remarks delivered on stage - to blame the dead of Charlie Hebdo for getting themselves murdered. Trudeau's rationale is that in mocking Islam these cartoonists are "punching down" at a disadvantaged minority - as opposed to doing what Trudeau has been doing for half-a-century and having the guts to "punch up" by attacking the, er, GOP. Only in the crapped out monodailies of the dying American media could this talentless twerp become wealthy and important.
I didn't think it was possible to despise the ghastly pedlar of Doonesbury any more than I already did. Turned out it was, and my contempt for Trudeau's words did nothing for my writing:
Charlie Hebdo dead, Vilks in hiding, Hedegaard shot, Rehman firebombed, Nekschot vanished, Molly Norris fled, Kurt Westergaard attacked by an Islamic axeman... But Garry Trudeau is on stage congratulating himself on 'afflicting the comfortable'. You can't 'punch down' much lower than sneering at the dead and those no longer able to speak, can you?
For my own part, I would have liked Kurt Westergaard to have outlived the far inferior draughtsman Trudeau. In my initial reaction to the Motoon crisis, I channeled Nelson Eddy:
The minute there were multimillion-dollar bounties on those cartoonists' heads, The Times of London and Le Monde and The Washington Post and all the rest should have said 'This Thursday we're all publishing all the cartoons. If you want to put bounties on all our heads, you better have a great credit line at the Bank of Jihad. If you want to kill us, you'll have to kill us all. You can kill ten who are stout-hearted men but you'll have to kill ten thousand more. We're standing shoulder to shoulder, and bolder and bolder.'
But they didn't do that. And as the years passed, in the leading cities of the west, even the rote pro forma defenses of free speech grew fainter and faded away. Kurt Westergaard bore a decade-and-a-half of continuous murder threats - coupled with indifference and condescension from Trudeau and other pampered eminences of his own profession - with good humor, steely determination, and no doubts about the justice of his cause. We need more like him. Rest in peace.
~Programming note: Today Mark will be making a rare Monday appearance on "Tucker Carlson Tonight". Shortly after that he will be back right here with Episode Nine of Burning Daylight.