In April 2010, Molly Norris, an editorial cartoonist at the Seattle Weekly, learned that the creators of the TV comedy "South Park" had been threatened with death by a Muslim extremist. The threat came after an episode in which the Prophet Mohammed appeared in a bear suit -- an allusion to Islam's prohibition against his depiction.
Norris was indignant at this use of threats of violence to stifle free speech. In protest, she drew a lighthearted cartoon of a poster announcing "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day." Tongue firmly in cheek, she named the day's sponsor as a nonexistent group: "Citizens against Citizens against Humor."
Today, Norris fears for her own life. On the FBI's advice, she's "gone ghost" -- changed her name and identity and abandoned her livelihood. The reason: A radical Muslim imam has called for her assassination on grounds that she blasphemed against Islam.
This sort of assault on free speech -- one of the West's most cherished liberties -- has become sadly familiar in places like the Netherlands and Denmark. In 2004, for example, a Muslim extremist slit the throat of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in retribution for his movie condemning the abuse of women in conservative Islamic societies. In 2006, Dutch-Somali writer and politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- an outspoken critic of Islam -- was forced to flee Holland after threats on her life. In Denmark, cartoonist Kurt Westergaard lives under police protection after a Somali man attempted to murder him.
Now an event like this may be shaping up in America, with chilling implications for freedom and the rule of law. Yet chances are you haven't even heard about it.
Norris' disappearance was prompted by a "fatwa" issued by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born imam living in Yemen. Awlaki has been cited as inspiring Nidal Hasan's massacre of 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, as well as Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt to bomb Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009 and the botched Times Square car bomb in May 2010.
Awlaki's fatwa against Norris was posted on the Internet by an Al Qaida- inspired magazine whose mission is to radicalize young Muslims. The fatwa ordered the cartoonist's "execution." Her "proper abode is hellfire," wrote Alwaki. "She "does not deserve life, does not deserve to breathe the air."
Surely, you say, American journalists and media moguls -- always staunch defenders of the First Amendment -- are proclaiming outrage and rallying round this young woman? On the contrary. The media have largely been silent about her nightmarish plight.
When the Washington Examiner, an on-line newspaper in Washington, D.C., asked the American Society of News Editors for a statement about Norris, none was forthcoming. Ditto for the Society of Professional Journalists. This, despite the fact that the editors group's mission statement extols "the First Amendment at home and free speech around the world," while the journalists claim to stand for "the perpetuation of the free press as the cornerstone of our nation and liberty."
Principle and backbone were more in evidence back in 1989, when Iran's radical Ayatollah Khomeini launched the current drive to extend Islamic law to the West. After Khomeini accused British novelist Salman Rushdie of blasphemy in "The Satanic Verses" and called for his death, the U.S. Senate unanimously resolved "to protect the right of any person to write, publish, sell, buy and read books without fear of violence."
But since 9/11, American media have increasingly caved to threats from radical Islam. The new norm is a self-censorship consistent with Muslim teaching that Islam must be free from insult, though other religions may be insulted at all times.
The best-known example of this double standard took place in 2005, when a handful of Danish cartoons mocking Mohammed sparked bloody riots throughout the Muslim world. American newspapers covered the protests closely. Yet only a handful of papers printed the cartoons that triggered the riots. Editors justified this self-censorship by invoking their "sensitivity" toward religious belief -- a quality rarely in evidence when the subject is Christianity.
This year, Yale University Press printed a book about the incident, entitled "The Cartoons That Shook the World." Originally, editors planned to include the cartoons, but Yale University intervened to prohibit this, citing concerns about violence.
When the Rev. Terry Jones, a self-promoting crackpot, threatened to burn the Qur'an, public figures -- starting with President Obama -- lined up to denounce his intolerance. Apparently, none of these people has had the courage to do the same with Awlaki and his henchmen, who pose a far greater danger.
Our elites, it seems, are content to leave gutsy individuals like Norris to stand up for the freedom at the core of Western civilization.
Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at email@example.com.