In the wake of the Mohammad cartoon controversy, I was asked by a reader if we ought to “allow” all literature–for example, literature specifically designed to engender hatred and contempt for other cultures or beliefs.

My answer: there should not be any limits placed on literature and we should “allow” all its forms. Literature by itself is inanimate; it has no volition; it cannot act. Therefore, one cannot credibly “prosecute” it, or hold it criminally responsible for actions taken by a person who has read it and might commit a crime. It is the person who is motivated by the literature who should be held responsible; after all, he chose to take the action. I stress here the role of action, or the initiation of force in a criminal act. Hate literature, such as literature that promulgates the notion of racial supremacy, bigotry, or that even advocates the overthrow of a legitimate government, cannot itself commit harm. To think it does or that it is in any way culpable is a ludicrously irrational notion that recalls the practice in the medieval era of judges trying and executing animals for crimes. It is the person or persons who take actions to advance an irrational cause who should be charged with a crime. And, here I stress crime.

Now, the authorities can be alerted to a group that distributes hate literature, and even monitor its members. But the authorities cannot legitimately act until that group takes a criminal action, such as blowing up a building, or until they have reason to believe that the group is conspiring to take such an action. And when the action is taken, then qua initiation of force, it should be deemed murder, or assault, or destruction of property, and the criminals, if apprehended, should be charged with that crime alone, and not with a “hate crime.”

The concept of “hate crimes” is an insidious concession to the collectivist notion that groups have rights. Only individuals have rights. If a “hate monger” murders one individual, then the appropriate charge of murder should be laid against him. If he has committed mass murder (such as the Oklahoma City bombing), then he should be charged with as many deaths and injuries as his action caused. And with nothing more. The man who recently slashed and shot men in a Massachusetts gay bar was to be charged with a “hate crime,” not just with assault with intent to kill. (He fled, and was killed in a gun battle with Arkansas police.) “Hate crime” laws are becoming a norm in the U.S., and usually carry heavier penalties than do capital crimes. Not good news.

During a trial, or during a journalistic expose of it, the hate literature that played a role in a crime can be used only to explain a motive, and of course can earn public opprobrium. (And it cannot be denied that much “hate” literature, such as the literature that claims the Holocaust never happened, is despicable.) That should be the limit of its role in the prosecution of a criminal offender. When Nazi leaders were put on trial at Nuremberg, they were not tried for the “hate” literature they were responsible for, but for their crimes of mass murder. One could claim that Hitler’s Mein Kampf is hate literature and ought to be banned, or that Uncle Tom’s Cabin perpetuates racial stereotypes and ought to be banned from schools and libraries. But Mein Kampf did not bring Hitler and the Nazis to power. It was a culture that put them in power, a culture that was receptive to such literature. And Uncle Tom’s Cabin did not perpetuate racial stereotyping; people perpetuated their own ignorance.

In the context of the Danish cartoons and the Muslim demonstrations against them — demonstrations that in the Arab world resulted in death and destruction — it is becoming evident that the malicious signs one saw being carried in London were the work of so-called “extremists” acting on orders from Arab governments. This is just now coming out, that Muslim clerics wanted to make the cartoons an issue to test the alleged inviolacy of the freedom of speech and the West’s commitment to that inviolacy. Islam is at war with the West. These “extremists” are agents of hostile foreign powers, and should be rounded up and tried as enemy agents. And if they are British citizens, they should be charged with treason and sentenced as harshly as the British allow. In either case, their placards were tantamount to a declaration of war on Britain and the West — qua their roles as agents of foreign powers.

This ought to be the policy of the United States, as well. Unfortunately, the harshest official response to the London demonstrations has been a call to adopt “hate crime” legislation (the “incitement to violence and/or murder bill”), which happens to be a subject of debate in the British parliament.

Parenthetically, in order to be clear on this point of “allowing” hate or any other kind of literature, and because my reader introduced the term “allow,” the “allowance” should not be a matter of legislative permission. It is not a government’s function to prescribe what is “good” literature and what is “bad,” it is not its proper function to be the arbiter of the quality or content of any kind of literature, whether it is personal letters, essays, books, posters, cartoons, or propaganda, and have the power to “allow” it or prohibit it. This includes the distinctions between portraits of nudes and pornography.

The whole campaign against “hate” literature and to make its creation and propagation a capital offense is a collectivist burglary tool employed to disguise censorship by degrees. After all, who is to determine what is “hate” literature? And what could constitute it? My essays? My novels? I could write a brilliant essay against second-handers, or Islam, or southern Baptists, or homosexuality. I’m sure someone who reads it might deem it “hate” literature. He is free to disagree with it, and to call it what he wishes, but not free to physically assault me or imprison me or ask the government to punish me because his “sensibilities” have been “offended,” or in any way to deprive me of my liberty and freedom to write. He can always walk away from it, or ignore it, or compose a rebuttal.

In the same way, Muslims can ignore cartoons of Mohammed. Those who don’t reveal their real agenda: they want to subvert the concept of freedom of speech in order to shield themselves from legitimate criticism and opprobrium. It is not irrational skinheads or racists they want protection from, but rather rational, reasoning individuals whom they could not rebut in civilized discourse. You might have noticed in the news that some mullahs, imams and even “distinguished” Islamic scholars at universities are “deploring” the violent demonstrations, chiefly because they claim the protests are giving Islam a “bad name.” Too late, that! They are merely playing “good cop, bad cop” with the West, and their protestations are just more yada-yada-yada lip service to beguile the unwary and disarm the undiscriminating.

One Islamic scholar from the American University in Washington this morning on ABC complained in an interview with Charley Gibson that the violence is damaging the move to reconcile the irreconcilable between Islam and the West. Jesus Christ and Jews, however, are legitimate subjects of virulent Arab cartoons; prophets are not. He asserted that it is incumbent upon Westerners to understand this and extend the hand of tolerance and respect, while rank and file Muslims don’t need to understand us. He might have added: We are just the infidels ready for beheading and slaughter unless we submit and become servile, ingenuous followers.

Gibson brought up the subject of Jill Carroll, the kidnapped reporter facing execution, and the murders by Islamic “extremists” of Westerners and even other Muslims, but the scholar danced around that and left Gibson sounding like Elmer Fudd. Gibson, like many Western journalists, just couldn’t grasp the either/or ultimatum lurking in the scholar’s gentle, seductively unbombastic rhetoric.

The only literature that can be held responsible for a consequence is libel — that is, the author of a libel can be held responsible — when someone’s written or broadcast words demonstrably damage a person’s livelihood or reputation. Slander is a form of libel. These actions, however, are not crimes, but civil torts to be adjudicated in a civil, not a criminal, court.

I might add that the Danish cartoons are not instances of slander or libel. Nor can they be called “hate speech” or “hate literature.” Islam, like Christianity, Hinduism, or any other system of mysticism, is just that: mysticism posing as a moral code based on the unprovable existence of a commandment-issuing ghost. Any organized faith or creed is a legitimate target for mockery or satire because it is the epitome of irrationality and foolishness. All creeds are merely elaborate systems of tarot cards, ouija boards and crystal balls supplemented by voluminous instruction manuals, and we do not scruple to satirize those frauds and their “prophets.”

How often was Richard Nixon caricatured by cartoonists and in television satire as an oily used car salesman? Or Gerald Ford as a bumbler prone to “locomotion malfunctions”? Did those portrayals result in riots or demonstrations by used car salesmen or fiery rampages by the lame and halt? No. Nor did Nixon, Ford, the used car salesmen or the lame and halt sue for their presumably injured “sensibilities.”

One can’t slander or libel the irrational. One’s aim is to stylistically ridicule it, to cause people to recognize and laugh at the irrational or the foolish, to not take it seriously, to communicate to them a faith’s inherent appeal to dupes and fools. Islam, however, is an especial candidate for satire and mockery, since under its drab patina of daily humility, devotion and selflessness lurks a bloodthirsty, homicidal maniac. This has been demonstrated countless times; the consistent, truly devout are obeying the central tenets of the creed, and the “Arab street” follows and sanctions. Now, if one calls a killer a killer, verbally or in print, to his face or in an editorial or a cartoon, is that an instance of slander or libel? No. That is identifying a fact. And if a mystic or killer demands “respect” for his beliefs and asks us to refrain from “insulting” them, he is asking us for the unearned, for an esteem to which the irrational is not entitled.

So, all forms of literature are rationally permissible — that is, free to be written or expressed. To paraphrase a popular saying in the U.S., “Literature doesn’t shoot people, people shoot people.” If governments or courts begin to regulate literature, however, then that initiation of force — or censorship — would justify the only means left for a free people to save themselves from slavery or secular dhimmitude: to revolt, or, as the heroes in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged did, go “on strike,” which is much the same thing.