The Muslims Can’t Help It At the Moment That They Find Such Easy Upset over Religious Matters, And I Suspect That We Are All Going to Have to Help Them Move Past This

Channel-surfing the other night while letting more vital parts of my mind recover from the cant and Kant of reading philosophy for much of the day, I happened to land in the middle of an MSNBC Investigates episode. And promptly witnessed one of the strangest scenes I’ve ever seen on video.

A guard in California’s dismal San Quentin State Prison will soon be jamming meals through narrow slots in the inmates’ cell doors. And what’s his final preparatory action?

He takes a swig from a bottle of mouthwash.


He’s trying to do to anything he can to avoid offending his prisoners. They are volatile enough, he explains, without bad breath wafting through their cell opening.

That vignette flashed into my mind first thing as I begin to read about the uproar in the Muslim world over the printing, first by a Danish weekly newspaper and then other European journals, of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad that Islamic people have found offensive.

As I’m sure it does for many others, the issue is one that for me touches off conflicting emotions and internal arguments. First trained as a journalist, I elevate the freedoms of expression—and particularly of the press—to near sacrosanct status. At the same time I’ve spent much of my career studying and developing my understanding of the psychological realities of being human. And this may be one of those times when, as the irresistible force meets the insatiable urge, the more noble one is going to have to give a little.

Like the savvy prison guard at San Quentin.

We’ve got millions upon millions of people on the earth who frankly cannot—simply cannot—help but go bananas when they view satirical depictions of their beloved prophet. So I think the intelligent thing to do is not put them in a position of having to view them. I wish it were otherwise. I hope the day will arrive when their limbic systems play less of a role in the processing of their religious sensibilities.

But for now, like it or not (and I don’t like it one bit), I think the media are going to have to use the San Quentin guard’s preventive psychology. And take a little mouthwash before they deliver the meal.

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