WASHINGTON -- It is unfortunate, one civil libertarian once said, but sometimes you have to defend people whom you would never invite to your home for dinner.
That's how I feel about the 12 rude and crude political cartoons about Islam's prophet Muhammad that a Danish newspaper published months ago, yet that just recently sparked angry mobs to take to the streets in a number of countries.
In September, Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of a Danish newspaper, decided "to test cartoonists to see if they were self-censoring their work, out of fear of violence from Islamic radicals." A dozen artists accepted the editor's invitation to make light of the prophet Muhammad and submitted work equating Islam itself, not just Islamic extremists, with terrorism, the oppression of women and other bad things.
The controversy and the violence spread when other newspapers in Europe and elsewhere republished the cartoons in a show of journalistic solidarity. Thousands of angry demonstrators marched through the streets of Cairo, Karachi, Istanbul, Tehran and several cities in Afghanistan.
Danes were ordered to flee Lebanon after mobs burned the Danish consulates in Damascus and Beirut. The Danish cartoonists have been threatened with beheading. How sadly ironic it is to see young Muslims defend Islam as a religion of peace by committing acts of horrible violence.
Yet it is just as ironic to hear some self-satisfied Christians talk as if there would not be a similar uproar here if mainstream newspapers ridiculed Jesus in a similar fashion.
And it is ironic to me that some of my friends who condemned American media for refusing to run grisly images of Iraqi civilians killed or maimed by American bombs are now praising America's media for refusing to run the controversial cartoons of Muhammad.
To me, both decisions center on the same issue: the tastes and sensibilities of our audience. Most of today's mainstream newspaper editors seem to believe, as I do, that we should not put anything in the paper that will make our readers ill over breakfast.
Of course, editorial cartoonists in particular are not doing their job very well if they don't provoke somebody into outrage on a regular basis. Offense should make a point. While there is always something in the paper that will offend, we should try to avoid offending unnecessarily.
That's my problem with the Muhammad cartoons. They seem to be intended primarily to do nothing more than provoke Muslims, including the vast majority of law-abiding Muslims who never did the cartoonists any harm.
Nevertheless, there's a right and a wrong way to respond to insults. The playing fields of free speech and free press call for a response in kind, such as cartoons, writings or speeches that chastise the cartoonists and the editors for abusing their freedom of expression.
Unfortunately, Iran's most popular daily newspaper has distorted this idea by announcing a contest for the best cartoon that makes fun of the Holocaust. That's answering one offense against innocent Muslims with another offense against innocent Jews.
All of which makes me wonder about the timing of this controversy. Since the cartoons first appeared five months ago, I wonder why the controversy is firing up now. The riots last year in France showed how wellsprings of resentment can bubble up. And as turbulent as America's past has been, Europe has yet to deal nearly as well with its own boiling pot of diversity.
I suspect that the cartoon uprisings, like similar eruptions we have seen in the United States, are not about the cartoons. They're really about long-simmering fears, suspicions and resentments between Muslims and mainstream European society.
Over time, I expect Europe's fed-up cartoonists and its angry and resentful Muslims will find ways to share the same countries and culture. Until then, they have a lot to learn about each other - if they don't kill each other first.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.