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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Dying for a film

When that cab driver in Paris told me that the Dutch had their own problems, I don’t think he was referring merely to the price of real estate in Amsterdam. And, being French, he was, I’m fairly sure, not even referring to certain things that the Dutch get up to that tend to upset red-state Americans, like euthanasia and same-sex marriage. No, my guess is that he was referring to a couple of political murders.

Two years ago, the flamboyant populist politician Pim Fortuyn was killed by an animal rights activist. The assassin explained in court that he wanted to stop Fortuyn from using Muslin immigrants as scapegoats. Fortuyn, whose political fortunes were on the rise, was indeed an advocate of limiting immigration into Holland. He also advocated repealing the article of the Dutch constitution which outlaws discrimination. He had criticized Islam as a “backward culture” and had written a book called Against the Islamisation of Our Culture. But Fortuyn was not your typical European right-winger. He was a sociology professor and openly gay. And a lot of Dutch people agreed with him.

Five weeks ago, another prominent Dutch figure was murdered. This time the victim was Theo van Gogh, a filmmaker and newspaper columnist. Politically, van Gogh, a distant relative of the painter Vincent van Gogh, was cut from the same cloth as Fortuyn. He was known to offend a lot of people’s religious sensibilities. The novelist Leon de Winter, a Jew, recalled that van Gogh was prone to making Holocaust jokes. He also noted that van Gogh had written, upon seeing Mel Gibson’s last film, ““I just went to see ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ a film as bad as an LSD trip which shows once again that also in the sewers of Christianity collective daftness just leads to mud.” After Fortuyn’s murder, van Gogh turned his attention to Islam and made a film called Submission, in collaboration with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a member of the Dutch parliament, who had fled to Holland from Somalia ten years earlier. I have not seen Submission (its title is the literal translation of the Arabic word “Islam”), but it sounds as though it was indeed calculated to be offensive to devout Moslems. In particular, passages from the Koran, which were deemed to be hostile to women, were shown on semi-clad female bodies.

On the same day as the U.S. presidential election, a 26-year-old man, who was the son of immigrants and an observant Moslem, shot van Gogh as he was riding his bicycle and then attempted to behead him with a pair of knives. He finished by sticking a note, threatening Hirsi Ali, on van Gogh’s chest with one of his knives. The suspect had a history of violence and was apparently connected in some way to a group of radical Moslems.

Given that van Gogh was murdered clearly in direct response to a having made a film, it seems incumbent on any writer who considers himself a serious commentator on film to say something about it. Now, it should be noted that I myself have never actually made any claim to be a serious commentator on film. But, nevertheless, I feel obliged to offer my own inadequate thoughts.

There are two stories here. There is van Gogh’s murder itself, and then there is the reaction to it. I thought there might be some public outcry to the murder from voices in Hollywood, if only to uphold the principle that artists, whatever the quality of their work or their political orientation, should not be killed for exercising freedom of expression. Strangely, there has been very little reaction that I can discern. Most of what I have been able to find has come from conservative political columnists. And that’s not too surprising. Van Gogh’s murder provides one piece of anecdotal evidence that radical Islamic movements are a threat and should be confronted, i.e. confirming their opinion that George W. Bush is on the right track. But is there no one to speak up for van Gogh on freedom-of-expression grounds? There is Andrew Sullivan who, on his blog, asked, “Is Spielberg asleep? Is Valenti in a coma? Scorsese? Stone?” (I believe the last one refers to Oliver, not Sharon.)

And then there is Pat Sajak, of all people. The Wheel of Fortune meister writes in the conservative Human Events Online, “Can you conceive of a filmmaker being assassinated because of any other subject matter without seeing a resulting explosion of reaction from his fellow artists in America and around the world?” Sajak draws a comparison between van Gogh’s murder and what would have happened if a documentary filmmaker had made a movie about excesses of anti-abortion activists and then was killed by an anti-abortion activist. “Would there be angry protests? Candlelight vigils?” asks Sajak. “Outraged letters and columns and articles? Awards named in honor of their fallen comrade? Demands for justice? Calls for protection of artistic freedom?” Of course, there would, says Sajak, and justifiably so. He then searches for a reason for the silence, speculating, “If I were Michael Moore, I would much rather rail against George W. Bush, who is much less likely to have me killed, than van Gogh’s murderer and the threat to creative freedom he brings.” Finally, Sajak gets to the most likely cause of the lack of public outrage. Criticizing an atrocity like this might somehow align the speaker with President Bush.

What is the right way to think about van Gogh and what happened to him? As I said, there are two stories here. The first is that a man was murdered. Sadly, many people are murdered every single day. Some murders are random and truly senseless. Others are motivated by reasons that can be considered political, social, religious or otherwise indicative of a climate larger than the individuals involved. Even these political murders are too numerous to take much note of. Still, we can all agree, at least in principle, that murder is wrong, that people shouldn’t be killed, especially if they do not present a direct threat to the person doing the killing. Beyond that, some murders are raised up for special attention and discussion. They take on symbolism of some struggle or some principle. The victim is no longer merely an individual. He or she becomes a martyr.

When I was having my dinner conversation about world politics with that Dutch fellow in the Latin Quarter last month, my Scottish brother-in-law-by-marriage deftly attempted to shift the subject away from Bush and Iraq, by bringing up the van Gogh murder. Our friend said clearly that it was wrong for him or anyone else to be murdered. And then there was a “but.” “But his movie was very offensive to Moslems.” This was certainly true. But the reason for attaching it to what was, on the surface, a condemnation of the crime was, in effect, to offer a rationalization. It’s a bit like what has always gone on in rape trials, where the defense basically says that the victim “was asking for it,” by dressing too provocatively or whatever. It is to say that there are essentially two ways to look at any sensational crime. Either the perpetrator is an evildoer or the victim is “guilty” of some sort of negligence. What our dinner companion seemed to be saying was that van Gogh was guilty of negligently making a movie that provoked at least one individual with radical Islamist sympathies.

To be sure, making van Gogh’s murder a cause célèbre does have its problems. Doing so could well obscure for some in the West the fact that the vast majority of Moslems are decent people who would never dream of killing anybody. It might even spur some kind of backlash against them. On the other hand, it is no use pretending that van Gogh’s killer is a totally isolated lone gunman who does not have a significant numbers of comrades of like mind in Europe and the rest of the world. In the end, however, people make causes of things like an assassination when it fits in with their existing political agenda, not simply on pure principle.

As for me, I won’t presume to tell the rich and famous what they should say or not say for public consumption. I will speak merely myself. And I say simply that the murder of Theo van Gogh was an atrocity, and it was wrong. No ifs, ands or buts.

-S.L., 9 December 2004

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