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Free Speech Is Not a License to Kill

There is a difference between cynics or deluded fanatics expressing extreme opinions and people in positions of authority doing so. Individuals who spread fear and loathing on the internet or television are repellent and sometimes dangerous, but political and religious leaders who stir hatred authorize people to commit murder.

NEW YORK – Hadi Matar, the 24-year-old Lebanese-American charged with attempting to murder the British author Salman Rushdie, appears to have been acting on his own. Matar claims to be an admirer of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian supreme leader who issued the murderous fatwa against Rushdie in 1989 following the publication of the author’s novel The Satanic Verses. But there is no evidence that the attacker is linked in any way to the Iranian government. Nonetheless, at least one commentator has called the assassination attempt an “act of state-promoted terrorism.”

That description sounds about right. State-promoted is not the same as state-sponsored, much less state-directed. Even though the Iranian government has not in fact tried to kill Rushdie, Khomeini’s fatwa still stands, and the state must bear some responsibility for inspiring murderous fanatics like Matar.

Killers or would-be killers have been fired up by violent language before, of course. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian who murdered 69 young people at a social-democratic summer camp in 2011, was an avid reader of writers who warned that Muslims, coddled by European liberals, posed a dire threat to Western civilization. Does this mean that individual writers and bloggers whose output convinced Breivik that he should kill to save the West were partly responsible for his horrific deeds?

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