So let’s suppose we can get past all the closing arguments in the case of Pamela Geller — the organizer of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) conference where two Islamic radicals murdered two soldiers in a Chattanooga, Tenn., shopping mall. Surely, we can stop thinking of such incidents as isolated horrors in a faraway faraway land, especially since ISIS is persuading would-be suicide bombers that free speech guarantees them immunity from criminal prosecution. And surely we can remember, without their breathless predictions, that the movement for free speech also guarantees privacy for the speakers.
But on the question of tolerance, let’s be honest: at a time when our diversity seems about to converge, there are many Americans who, in effect, hate you or me. Maybe they assume that you hold very extreme views and they disapprove of what you say. Or maybe they feel a benign contempt for certain kinds of people, for whom they offer no mild means of avoiding disagreement, but rather racist, sexist, homophobic, religiously intolerant discourse. How many free speech absolutists should have to run the show to expose the utter rot in American society? How many people who support free speech yet would do anything to ban Islam from being practiced on American soil should we take seriously their demand for pluralism?
Let’s be honest, too: there’s no shame in wanting to ban a large religion from public life, but there is shame in wanting to ban free speech. Because an illiberal spirit in civic life leads to illiberal ends.
The issue isn’t whether we should tolerate dissent. We already do plenty of it, including by silently tolerating the contrary views held by a large number of citizens, about topics that are of central importance to our lives. But there’s no doubt that there are people out there who advocate violence against the defenseless; it’s the circumstances surrounding the murders that ought to change our approach to government and society.