That's me on the right with three comrades from the free-speech wars, gathered to mark the fifth anniversary of the Danish Mohammed cartoons in Copenhagen in 2010. The gentleman on the left was something of an optimist about it all, at least by comparison with me. By the time I flew in for the tenth anniversary, things were far more fraught on freedom of expression in the western world, and said gentleman could no longer join us (even under protection of the PET - the Danish Secret Service) because he had been forced out of public life. The fifteenth anniversary observances were canceled by Covid. We shall see if there's a twentieth.
But here's the score card from that 2010 event: Lars Hedegaard, of the Danish Free Press Society, had invited five of us that day - a Dane, a Swede, a Norwegian, a Dutchman and yours truly:
~The Norwegian comedienne Shabana Rehman had already had her family's restaurant firebombed; she now lives under 24/7 police protection, which is not the easiest way to practice observational standup;
~The Dutch cartoonist Nekschot was obliged, for security reasons, to appear on stage with his face obscured and unidentifiable. So he chose to wear a burqa. Funny, but not quite secure enough. Nekschot had already been arrested for "hate speech" with the authorities openly taunting him about the impending loss of his anonymity. He now lives in hiding, and is no longer a cartoonist;
~Our host Lars Hedegaard was subsequently shot at point-blank range, but fortunately by an incompetent, so he survived. Mr Hedegaard also lives in hiding; the would-be assassin lives free in Turkey, where Sultan Erdogan refuses to extradite;
~and now Lars Vilks is dead.
Yesterday, Sunday afternoon, he was being driven in a bulletproof car by two of his protection officers when there occurred what Swedish police regard as a freak collision with a truck. An almighty fire ensued and neither Lars nor the policemen survived; the driver of the other vehicle is seriously wounded and in hospital. This all happened near Markaryd, about an hour north-east of Helsingborg, where Lars was born. Helsingborg, like many Swedish cities, is utterly transformed, which is why Lars Vilks ended his life in an unmarked car being driven home under police protection from a guarded lunch with an old friend.
The BBC reported his demise thus:
Muhammad cartoonist killed in traffic collision
He was not, in fact, a cartoonist. He was an artist, primarily a sculptor - of limited technical skills (as he conceded) but of whimsical imagination. Yet, as the gates clank shut on free speech across Europe, it's easier for lazy Beeb hacks to lump every dissenter under the category of "Muhammad cartoonist". In 2006 a Swedish joke went viral, as nobody said back then: someone placed a model of a dog on a roundabout, and then someone else put another dog at another roundabout, and for a while the rondellhund was a genuine grassroots phenomenon. I appreciate that Americans don't find roundabouts funny in the least, so the joke in the "roundabout dog" craze might get a little lost in translation.
At any rate, the jest came juddering to a halt when Lars drew Mohammed as a roundabout dog in three works for an exhibition at an art gallery in Tällerud. The gallery got cold feet, but one of the drawings was published in the newspaper Nerikes Allehanda, as part of an editorial on free speech. Just as Jyllands Posten forbore to republish the Mohammed cartoons on their tenth anniversary, so Nerikes Allehanda would not republish Lars' drawing today. All those "robust debates on freedom of expression" have been indefinitely postponed and very non-robustly. For the record, here is the picture that changed Lars Vilks' life:
That's all it took. Lars was very funny about his newfound celebrity: He carried with him a picture of a Pakistani mob that had been whipped into a frenzy by somewhat inaccurate intelligence, so they were all jumping up and down in the streets demanding "DEATH TO LARISH". And for a while that day in Copenhagen we all called him Larish: "Hey, Larish, another beer?", etc.
Larish was likewise a hoot about two of the first jihadists sent to dispatch him. He came home one night to find that a couple of Kosovars had set his kitchen alight. As they escaped across the snowy field heady with the warm glow of their glorious victory over the infidel, they chanced to glance down and noticed that that warm glow was because they'd accidentally set their trousers on fire. After some effort to extinguish the blaze, they were forced to abandon their flaming pantaloons and scamper off into the chill night in their jihadist BVDs. Alas, the best-laid plans and all that: in addition to being trouserless in a Nordic winter, they had neglected to remove from their smouldering pants the charred driving licenses and other identifying documentation. Police were able to track them down rather easily, not least because they were the only two men in Scandinavia taking a late-night stroll in their Y-fronts.
When Lars told this story in Copenhagen, the whole room was roaring with laughter. Afterwards we all went to dinner. And news came to us somewhere between the soup and digestifs that a one-legged Chechen from Belgium, seething with resentment at Lars and the rest of us infidels, had prematurely self-detonated in his Copenhagen hotel room while assembling his package and preparing to hop into Paradise. And we all had a grand laugh about that, too. As I put it that day, Islamic terrorists are like Yosemite Sam, forever shoving the stick of dynamite in their own pants – until one day Yosemite Ahmed manages to get it right. After the bombing of the Conservative Party conference in 1984, the IRA taunted Mrs Thatcher: "You have to be lucky every day, we only have to be lucky once."
Those jihad incompetents with the smoking trousers would modify the line: We only have to be competent once. Al-Qa'eda had put a six-figure bounty on Lars' head, and there was no shortage of takers. In Ireland, the gardai arrested four men and three women from Waterford and Cork for a well-advanced plot to fly to Stockholm and kill him. At the height of the so-called "Troubles" you'd have been hard put to find five men in Waterford willing to travel to London to kill Mrs Thatcher or Willie Whitelaw. But an obscure artist in southern Sweden? Pas de problème!
On Valentine Day's 2015 Lars Vilks was appearing at the Krudttønden café in Copenhagen for a discussion on "Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression". President Obama had recently told the UN General Assembly that "the future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam", and the fanatics of Islam were inclined to take him at his word and act accordingly. So at the Krudttønden that Valentine's afternoon they came in shooting and yelling "Allahu akbar!" - which is Arabic for "Can't we all just get along?" Three policemen were wounded and a Danish film director Finn Nørgaard was killed.
Lars was the target that day, and he felt the victims of the attack were dead and wounded because of his presence. So, after one highly guarded event the following month at which he was awarded the Sappho prize I'd received when we first met in 2010, Lars Vilks withdrew from public life - and, in a small hitherto peaceable Scandinavian kingdom, another little bit of European cultural life and artistic spirit shriveled and died.
Lars Vilks didn't get all hifalutin about freedom of speech. He took his stand on the simplest of propositions: "I am free to choose what I laugh at." That freedom is all but extinguished fifteen years on, which is why the bouffed crapmeisters of American telly and their bloated committees of Approved Comedy majors are reduced to leaden, witless propaganda. Lars was an old-school Euro-leftie, and couldn't quite figure where all his friends had gone. At that 2010 appearance he jousted with me about right-wing Yank bogeymen I could barely recall: "But Jesse Helms never firebombed your kitchen, did he?" I pointed out. Lars was that rare fellow straight out of the standard taunt to left-wing provocateurs who flaunt their cobwebbed "transgressiveness" by exhibiting a crucifix floating in the artist's urine or mounting a play in which a gay Jesus gets sodomized by Judas: "Yeah, whatever. Lemme know when you do one about Mohammed..." Lars Vilks was the guy who said: "Sure. Hold my Stormakstporter."
It was an unusual traffic accident. On a divided carriageway with a sturdily fenced median, the police vehicle somehow managed to cross into the oncoming lane to find itself just in front of a large truck. As Robert Spencer puts it:
The names of his police guards need to be released. As does the name of the truck driver. Note that 'the rescue service and the police said it would take a lot for a vehicle to be able to pass into the other lane, given that it is separated by a wire fence.'
The Swedish police continue to investigate. Whatever the circumstances of the fatal crash, Douglas Murray is correct as to the broader cause of death:
Lars Vilks was a man, and an artist, of enormous courage. He should never have been in this situation, and if other artists and others across Europe had not been such cowards then he never would have been.
I ponder the grim arithmetic of that 2010 event. Six of us on stage that day: One firebombed, one forced into hiding and out of his job, one shot, and now one dead. It's like Agatha Christie for jihadists: And Then There Were None. Maybe someone would like to produce a film or a play on the theme. Ah, but no: As Douglas says quite correctly, Lars Vilks was only in that van because of the miserable cowardice of our so-called artists, a "community" that spends the whole year giving each other awards back and forth for their "courage" and "heroism".
The principal change this last decade is that the western left has junked that apocryphal bit of Voltaire and cheerily put itself on the same continuum as Islam's enforcers: They're not (yet) firebombing your kitchen but, like the fellows who do, they agree that apostasy (misgendering et al) must be punished, severely.
And so a truly heroic man - on the great central question before Sweden and Europe - dies alone and in hiding.
Rest in peace, Larish.