It's not even that the terrorists have won, it's that wannabe terrorists have won.
A group called Revolution Muslim, which by most accounts seems less a terrorist cell than, metaphorically speaking, a couple of guys living in their parents' basements, managed to scare Comedy Central this week into censoring South Park for mocking their religion, or rather, the ban in some quarters of depictions of the prophet Muhammed.
The Anti-Defamation League, which has tracked the New York-based Revolution Muslim, says the group has no more than about a dozen members, is known mainly for spouting anti-Semitism, handing out pamphlets on the sidewalks of New York and picketing mosques that it thinks aren't radical enough. The founders are converts to Islam, including one who previously was Jewish and associated with a group called, no joke, Jews for Allah.
I know: How do you parody something that's already self-parody?
The South Park insult seemed fairly tame, at least by South Park standards, which of course has set the outrageousness bar high particularly when it comes to religions and the figures they hold sacred. (Jesus, Mary, Buddha, Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard have all gotten the shockalicious South Park treatment.)
The episode, so far as I can tell from clips that now have been cut and redacted more than your basic National Security Agency document, was making a point about the depiction taboo by putting Muhammed inside a bear mascot suit to protect him from being depicted.
As it turned out, it wasn't even Muhammed underneath the suit, but Revolution Muslim nonetheless was outraged and warned that South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone would "wind up like Theo Van Gogh," the Dutch filmmaker murdered in 2004 by an Islamic radical over a movie that accused the religion of condoning violence against women.
Comedy Central responded to the website warning by bleeping out even the word "Muhammed" in the following episode and — off-the-charts irony alert! — the entire speech that one character makes about fear and intolerance.
So to recap: A cartoon was censored not for depicting Muhammed but merely talking about depicting Muhammed and then even that talk was censored. This has to go down as one of the strangest freedom-of-speech cases ever — when Kyle is silenced, we all are silenced.
But such is the state of the world today that, a) some of the sharpest political commentary comes from Comedy Central courtesy of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and, yes, South Park, and b) now even Comedy Central has wimped out.
And to a fringe group that a Muslim advocacy organization, Council on American-Islamic Relations, quickly denounced as extremist and lacking in any credibility. Would that other mainstream groups similarly speak out against the fringers in their own midsts when they threaten violence.
I'm not quite the South Park demographic, not being a pre-adolescent boy obsessed with poop jokes and other bodily excretions. But the couple of times I've come across it on TV, I thought it was hysterical — like the creators understood that even gross little boys can be smart and trenchant about current events. The show has taken on issues from abortion to immigration, and it particularly delights in skewering celebrities, especially Hollywood liberals. That gave it cachet with some conservatives, although the show seems to take no prisoners anywhere on the political spectrum.
Still, as giddily rude and crude as it can be, South Park usually doesn't descend into unwatchable nastiness — except maybe for poor Tom Cruise, who has become the butt of a particularly brutal running joke. Sometimes, again like a pre-adolescent boy, the show even displays an occasional sweet side — there was one episode that seemed like it was going to put Mormons through the South Park wringer that instead ended up depicting them as irredeemably nice people.
Maybe that's why a particularly strange set of bedfellows have risen to defend the show — when was the last time, if ever, Bill O'Reilly and Jon Stewart were on the same side of an issue?