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May 07, 2015


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I think you are probably right. She is a morally reprehensible person and indeed reckless - and the problem is that to shift moral culpability to her is to excuse the attackers.

The question I don't think you addressed though (not prejudging what you have to say) is a slightly more nuanced one. What Pamela Geller chose to do was an intentional provocation to a group that we know are out there and are prepared to behave even more wrongly than Geller (murder trumps insults every time.) However, we know that a security guard was wounded and there there were bystanders that had nothing to do with Geller event also endangered - and one could also posit that police officers, who had no choice but to intervene were also endangered. So Geller did not just recklessly endanger herself and other participants in the conference, but consciously chose to shelter behind others who might have had no choice in the matter. That latter issue I think raises some thorny issues of moral responsibility when someone is being recklessly provocative (to the admittedly easy to provoke.)

It is an issue inter alia that one sees a lot, free speech, provocation, the desired response and the innocent bystander or obligated protector - Orange Parades, Tricolours and Union Jacks in Northern Ireland come to mind.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Nobody, and certainly not Noah Feldman, is attempting to “shift moral culpability to [Geller]” so as “to excuse the attackers.” There are different kinds and degrees of moral culpability at work here (in which case the remainder of the first comment above comes closer to the mark).

I largely agree with Clyde Leland’s* reply to this post at the Legal Ethics Forum: our moral reasoning is rather impoverished and unreal if it cannot come to the conclusion that Pamela Geller shares some measure of moral culpability for the violence—the injuries and deaths—that occurred in Garland, Texas. Well-knowing that there is a comparatively small set of self-described Muslims who might or will be provoked by an event such as this, an event with no other redeeming or rationally defensible social, cultural, or political purpose or value (a distinction with a meaningful difference from some of the cases cited in the New Republic article) and thus clearly designed to inspire Islamaphobes and religious fanatics alike, Geller was inspired to act by the possibility if not strong probability that this contrived circus show could spark violent conflict of one kind or another. There is ample evidence that Geller and her collaborators are not genuinely or minimally concerned about our constitutionally protected right of free speech, given her prior attempts to prevent Muslims from exercising that right. I agree with the New York Times op-ed piece that stated this “was an exercise in bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom.”

Of course these ill-motivated (or ‘nasty-hearted’) Islamophobes were perfectly free to orchestrate their freak show forum of amplified bigotry and hatred, but that freedom is not bereft of moral scrutiny, particularly of the consequentialist kind in which we are held in some measure responsible for outcomes that we deliberately or recklessly (or even negligently) set in motion or at least contribute to setting-in-motion. And one need not be a utilitarian or a consequentialist to engage in this sort of moral evaluation: “Every sane moral philosopher since the beginning of the subject has had regard for outcomes and consequences” (David Wiggins). And yet we can appreciate the specifically utilitarian contribution to this focus on outcomes and consequences if we (conversely) extend the predication “acts wrongly” in terms of consequences. As Samuel Scheffler memorably argued, if we rule out consequentialist reckoning of a moral sort, it seems we’re “committed to the claim that morality tells us to do less good than we are in a position to do, and to prevent less evil that we are in a position to prevent.” Nonetheless, we need not go so far as the utilitarian or consequentialist in claiming that all wrongness (or rightness), so to speak, is “determined exclusively by reference to the valuation of outcomes.” Geller bears at least “fractional moral responsibility” (moral responsibility need not be an ‘all-or-nothing’ affair, it might come in degrees) for the violence that ensued, which in no way diminishes or detracts from the moral and legal responsibility of the two men who acted with murderous intent. In this case, those with Geller who acted from a different (but closely related) species of dark motives or evil intentions from the would-be killers are no less morally accountable for their behavior, given their singular causal role in creating this deliberately provocative event (Geller planned this immoral contrivance so as to publicly illustrate and ‘confirm’ the ‘truth’ of her beliefs about Muslims as Muslim and Islam in toto).

* In particular: “the right to say something does not relieve one of responsibility for the consequences of one’s speech, especially if those consequences were foreseeable.”

Steve L.

Geller's disdain for the free expression of others has exactly nothing to do with this issue. As Howard Wasserman astutely observed at Prawfs, "Very few speakers speak with the purpose of striking a blow for free speech . . . . They speak because they have something they want to say. They became advocates for free speech writ large only because the government prosecuted them and they were forced to stand up for First Amendment principles. I would be uncomfortable if we tried to distinguish among speakers based on whether they are fighting a larger fight."

Geller was opposing terrorist censorship, not government prosecution, but the point is the same. Free expression may not be her principle, but it should be our principle.

So you think that "Pamela Geller shares some measure of moral culpability for the violence—the injuries and deaths—that occurred in Garland, Texas." Really, the deaths? She is responsible for the deaths of the terrorists who donned body armor and carried assault rifles, and who traveled over 1000 miles for the purpose of killing her over a cartoon? And you think that it is morally impoverished to think otherwise?

Well, okay. You have succeeded in rendering me speechless.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Steve, I see you read with care what I wrote.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

"Geller's disdain for the free expression of others has exactly nothing to do with this issue." It does insofar as she and those who support her publicly invoke their putative concern for (or rationalize their behavior as an exemplification of the value of) "free speech" in contrast to all Muslims who by definition (in her view) do not: it indirectly if not directly speaks to the sincerity of her motives, the reasons behind her actions.... Geller has a difficult time distinguishing Muslims from terrorists: "Islam is the most antisemitic, genocidal ideology in the [she appears to know very little or nothing about the history of Christianity with regard to Judaism] world." "She holds the view that radical Islam is a bona fide variant of Islam, which she describes in a number of ways: 'Muslim terrorists were practicing pure Islam, original Islam.' Terrorists don't spring from "perversions of Islam but from the religion itself.'" That she occasionally speaks of "moderate" or "secular Muslims" is only evidence of her uncanny ability to speak with a forked tongue. If one is genuinely concerned about "terrorist censorship" as such, it would seem to be at least prudent that one's opposition is the fruit of efforts to think and act in a principled, strategic, and tactical manner in opposition, that one thoughtfully consider the (morally, legally, and politically responsible) ways one might go about putting an end to terrorism not, as she prefers, to deliberately provoke it (there's a means/ends contradiction here). There are myriad means and methods that are applicable (because evidence exists for their effectiveness) in the immediate, short- , and long-term by way of combatting terrorism. Yes, sometimes one must "fight fire with fire" (as the forest service often does with backfires, especially in chaparral country here in Southern California), but that is rather different from conspicuously gathering fuels for a fire and doing everything but lighting the match, confident someone else will do the dirty deed. And it is rather different from fanning the flames of existing fires, thereby contributing (and there are different kinds and degrees of contributing) to the possible or probable harm of others.

Steve L.

Geller's values are not my values and they are not yours, Patrick. That she is a hypocrite says nothing about protecting her from terrorists, even if she is delighted to revel in the aftermath of the attack.

Nor must her means of expressing herself be, shall we say, "narrowly tailored" to meet your own standards. Free expression does not depend on whether she is acting in a "principled, strategic, or tactical manner" of which you and I approve.

We can agree that Geller is a terrible person motivated by ill will. Larry Flynt is likewise a terrible misogynist, who could have chosen much more principled means of attacking Jerry Falwell. But so what? Flynt still bears no "moral responsibility" for the assassination attempt by a white supremacist who was "provoked" by photographs in Hustler.

I think we have played out this discussion, so I probably will not respond further, but that is not out of disrespect for your opinion.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

I don't expect Geller and her ilk to share my or your values, only that she behave in a minimally responsible manner as a citizen in a democratic polity. It's not a matter of meeting "my standards" but, again, (generalizable) minimally moral, legal, and political (i.e., rational) standards of behavior whereby one assumes some measure of responsibility or accountability for one's actions, the consequences of which are fairly predictable: one knows or reasonably expects them to occur (for several reasons, I don't think the Flynt analogy at all apropos). I did not say or imply that "free expression" depends on whether she is acting in a "principled, strategic, or tactical manner." That was said in reference to the struggle against terrorism, you having essentially agreed that this was not about "free speech" as such. Moreover, that I have a right to do something does not mean I should always and everywhere exercise that right (in other words, I think we can make sense of the idea that one can exercise one's rights in an irresponsible or reckless manner), consequences be damned, particularly if my exercise is deliberately designed to enhance the risk of harm to others (i.e., innocents). It may not be illegal, but I find it no less immoral.


"I don't expect Geller and her ilk to share my or your values, only that she behave in a minimally responsible manner as a citizen in a democratic polity"

Do you apply the same standards to those you so vehemently defend in these pages?


"if my exercise is deliberately designed to enhance the risk of harm to others (i.e., innocents). It may not be illegal, but I find it no less immoral."

So, I am eagerly awaiting your screed about the conduct of those you so vehemently defend in these pages.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Good, you can wait until hell freezes over because I have no idea what you are referring to and I will not further discuss anything with an anonymous (i.e., gutless, spineless...) commenter.

S. Lubet

Let's keep it civil, Patrick. Many people post anonymously or pseudonymously on blogs, and Anon may have a good reason. You are under no obligation to respond to anyone, but name calling is always out of place.


Gee, PSOD, seems your language is just a bit more than offensive, just like the language regularly used by the folks you so frequently and vehemently defend in these pages.

Unfortunately, the folks you regularly defend in these pages often do more than just spout off in their offensive, vile way. Do you find them "immoral"? Have you read some of the statements about these cartoons put out by the folks you so regularly defend in these pages? Are you outraged?

Why do you work yourself up into such a frenzy about a cartoon? What is it that you would like to do to cartoonists who draw something you don't like?

Douglas Levene

I've never read anything by Geller and don't intend to, but I think there's a great public benefit in telling fanatics willing to kill cartoonists, "screw you." That's not terribly legal, for which I apologize, but honestly I do not understand why this is so hard. Geller was telling the Islamists that their writ doesn't run to the US. We should thank her for doing so.

Douglas Levene

As Mark Steyn pungently puts it, "Because a small Danish newspaper found itself abandoned and alone, Charlie Hebdo jumped in to support them. Because the Charlie Hebdo artists and writers died abandoned and alone, Pamela Geller jumped in to support them." The American press and most of the intelligentsia seem pretty content to let Geller die abandoned and alone, too.


Pamela Geller is reprehensible! She lies, spins, twists and distorts. She spews HATE! She's a mindless bigot, and mentally dysfunctional, altho' she is sane enough to choose how she acts.

Al Brophy

I guess this is clear, but the "Al" above is not Al Brophy.


"Freedom of Speech" was never intended to justify, dignify, or promote bigotry and hatemongering. In exercising one's freedom of speech, they also should act ethically and responsibly when they open their mouth. Simple, common sense. Otherwise, there maybe consequences. Why tolerate the intolerable.


You know, I asked this question about Geller earlier.

She does indeed have the right to free speech, and those who carried out the attack are indeed criminals. But there is a difference between her behaviour and that of say the Charlie Hebdo writers.

Geller on its face organised an event in a location surrounded by businesses, shops, a school and other facilities - the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas. She admits openly that the event was intended to lead to an incident, indeed a violent incident. She was prepared for violence, she pretty well gloated over the fact that it happened.

So Geller chose to mount this event in a location where it was very likely indeed extremely likely that among those endangered would be people who had nothing to do with the event, quite probably were unaware it was being held - and event which she by all accounts affirmatively hoped would lead to violence. She made a choice to advance her objections to Islam in such a way as to endanger other people, and indeed sheltered behind security guards, police (who made not choice as to whether to be present), convention centre employees and so on. Indeed she would have presumably sued had she been denied the use of the convention centre - whose employees were endangered by the way in which she chose to vindicate her 1st amendment rights. I have asked the question, does anyone have any moral or ethical concern about the endangering of other to make her point?

What if she went further. What if she decided to shelter behind a small child, or hold another person in front of her as a shield? Would this raise questions? Is it a real difference or one of degree?


Perhaps another way of putting my point is that you can recognise the legality of free speech and its importance in a democratic society. However, to argue that someone who engages in a "coat trailing" exercise is not "morally responsive" for its outcome, no matter who is hurt, is a different question. It is like asking if the Blackshirts marching through the East End of London in the 30s were not morally responsible for the bystanders who were injured in the ensuing riot.

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