Everything is debatable, up to a point.

This point has been pushed farther in western civilization than anywhere else. In the process, we have discovered that free speech and debate are an essential condition for the flourishing of art and science, and for the discovery of institutions conducive to wealth and human development. This is why foreign aid flows from western governments to Islamic countries, not the other way around. This is why the West has been the home of Euclid, Baudelaire and cruise missiles.

Western civilization has also found institutions that limit clashes when, after everything has been debated, some individuals still hold conflicting basic values (which Amartya Sen, a social-choice economist and Nobel laureate, calls “basic judgments”). Private property, which draws a protected zone of action around the individual, is at the core of these institutions. If, after the debate has run its course, you still believe that your prophet hates to be pictured, you can make sure that drawings of Him (or Her) won’t appear in your own home, business, the private school you choose for your children, and so forth. On the other hand, I am equally free to post drawings of the guy in my living room, on my website or in my magazine centrefold.

This is called civilization.

What if somebody’s basic values dictate that his moral principles be imposed on me, while my own basic values are summarized in John Stuart Mill’s beautiful sentence, “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign”? When individuals hold such conflicting basic values, there is only one solution: to fight it out.

In fact, there is another alternative: to play dove and submit. It implies that, for the side that chickens out, the real basic value is peace (at any cost). Now, peace, exterior or domestic, is good if it results from an effective protection of liberty; but it is bad if it follows from the abolition of liberty.

This is where the Danish cartoons issue becomes important. Commentators have noted how people in the West seem ready to submit to the Islamic bullies, even on our own soil. Against this, we must affirm our traditional liberty to question, and laugh at, anything—including a religion. If I am wrong about Islam, anybody is (or should be) free to try and peacefully persuade me and others with arguments and sarcasm.

When Islamists demand “respect,” they are posturing as hawks to intimidate us into submission. We should affirm clearly that it is they who must respect our traditions of liberty. This is the message that businessman and law student Dan Romano conveyed when he mixed with Islamists during a Feb. 11 demonstration in Montreal, carrying a placard with a (respectful) representation of Mohammed. When he refused to put down his placard, our hero says that demonstrators surrounding him “did not hesitate to start pushing and pulling me and physically trying to pry the sign out of my hands.” Things would probably have turned more violent if a CTV camera had not started rolling—but the station, probably out of fear, did not run the footage.

During the 20th century, “our” states in the western world have morally (and literally) disarmed individuals. Cartoonists have to hide from the vengeance of barbarians. Long before Islamist thugs tried their hands at it, “our” states have been oppressing us—with their politically correct, coercive values, and their mounting controls on speech deemed to offend privileged, untouchable groups, not to speak of the current building of the Orwellian Surveillance State. Even in England, the modern cradle of free speech, the country of Milton and Mill, people are now prosecuted for speech crimes (and not only violent Islamists). Canada is on the same path, and it remains to be seen what will happen now. Thus far, minister of Foreign Affairs Peter McKay has warned us that using our traditional liberties pose “a danger to Canadian troops” who, opposite to conventional wisdom, need to be protected by us instead of the other way around!

Of course, western states are not as bad as their Islamist counterparts—which is not saying much. Yet, by restricting our traditional liberties, our own tyrants have brought us closer to the point where, domestically, individuals are likely to clash on basic values.