Seattle cartoonist Molly Norris lives with a metaphorical anvil over her head (she is, after all, a cartoonist).
Last month Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Islamic cleric holed up in Yemen, declared Norris a target for execution. Her transgression? Earlier this year, Norris responded to a censored episode of Comedy Central's "South Park" that featured the prophet Mohammed dressed in a bear suit (Jesus and other religious figures appeared dressed as themselves). All references to Mohammed were bleeped after the network knuckled to threats by a handful of New Yorkers who dub themselves "Revolution Muslim."
Norris watched the bleep-filled, image-blanked episode and was repelled. To express her free-speech solidarity, she launched a facetious protest that proclaimed May 20 "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day." The faux sponsor's Twain-esque name? "Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor."
Sadly, at least among a select class of extremists, irreverence of the cartooning sort is a big no-no. And in the 21st century, satire can get you killed.
Norris quickly dialed it back and walked after an "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" Facebook page appeared (created by someone she didn't know) and began attracting anti-Muslim bigots. Cyberspace rants and pornographic images of the Muslim prophet generated additional threats. By May a court in Pakistan banned access to Facebook outright.
At a secret, undisclosed coffeehouse, Norris said, "I didn't want to start anything. It was an expression in response to what had happened."
Norris's assailant is, as we are wont to say in the American West, a really bad guy. Anwar al-Awlaki reportedly inspired Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, as well as the Times Square car bomber. He's also an American citizen, however, and his father along with a team of human rights attorneys are working to get his name off a U.S. government assassination list.
Politically and ethically, the Norris question is as clear as it gets. "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person," reads Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By any measure, Anwar al-Awlaki's fatwa does violence to free speech, religious pluralism, and the sanity of Muslim Americans who are forced to explain and disavow a maniac (for the record, most fatwas are religious legalisms that don't call the faithful to race out and murder writers and artists).
So here's a case of a wanted terrorist demanding the head of a Northwesterner. Why, then, has Molly Norris been met by the mother of all silence?
After more than a month, neither U.S. senator from Washington nor the governor nor Molly Norris's member of Congress, Rep. Jim McDermott, has contacted her. No elected official has issued a press release or posted a statement. As Sen. Maria Cantwell's press secretary, John Diamond, said, "We have nothing to say about that."
Arguably, a condemnation would be nice, or perhaps a risk-averse, "As a rule, we typically don't approve of terrorists putting our constituents on hit lists."
Norris is left hanging. "I feel just out there," she said.
Editorial cartoonist David Horsey did weigh in and is also a signatory to a June 1 petition in support of freedom of expression. The final line of the petition reads, "In the United States we have a proud tradition of political satire and believe in the right to speak or draw freely without censorship."
I asked Norris if the muzzled political climate means that there's no longer a place for satire in a global culture, including the most offensive variety. "I don't know," she said.
The low-grade indifference to Norris could be a pained expression of Northwest culture, the dark side of Seattle Nice (and just look at how the debate over the Ground Zero Mosque dissolved into ad hominems).
" 'If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all,' has long been the city's unofficial motto," writes Knute Berger in his book Pugetopolis. "It is not a plea for civil discussion, but rather a recipe for no discussion at all."
Concerning the community response, Norris said, "It seems really passive. It almost drags it out longer."
Ironically there's nothing more illiberal for Seattle liberals (like me) than the cloistered world of al-Awlaki. Think of the death penalty or women's rights or freedom of the press or gay marriage. Are we like cultural relativists and anti-universalists fearful that we might indirectly arouse anti-Muslim sentiment?
In the wake of the Facebook uproar but prior to the al-Awlaki imbroglio, Norris pulled something of a Gandhi: She reached out to the local Muslim-American community. "It's something America needs to be conscious and proactive about," Norris said regarding interfaith dialogue. "It's been healing for me to meet more Muslims. I was distraught, and I didn't know where else to go."
If someone turns this story into a film it should be entitled, The Accidental Fatwa.
Norris is currently working on a documentary short about the hijab, the head covering worn by Muslim women. In addition, over the past few months Norris has corresponded with American University scholar Akbar Ahmed and befriended members of the Seattle chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and its executive director, Arsalan Bukhari.
"CAIR has a no tolerance policy for threats of violence," Bukhari said from that same undisclosed coffeehouse. Bukhari was offended by the Facebook response and echoed Norris that "there's a cottage industry out there attacking Muslims."
Today, Norris is under FBI protection. She lives a life suspended. "You internalize the terror. The fear is real, it's substantial. For me, for all of my life, I'll be on that list," Norris said.
It appears that Anwar al-Awlaki has achieved his goal.
How do Northwesterners solve a problem like Molly Norris? With the mother of all silence, at least for now.