"I am Spartacus."
It is one of the iconic lines from an iconic film.
Remember Spartacus? The 1960 Stanley Kubrick film based on a Howard Fast novel about a slave rebellion back in the glory days of Rome? Kirk Douglas -- father of Michael -- played the heroic slave leader Spartacus, his good friend Antonius played by Tony Curtis. In the signal moment from the film (said to be a slap at McCarthyism by the film's blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo), re-captured slaves, back in chains, are offered leniency. They will not face crucifixion if they will but give up Spartacus, who sits in their midst unrecognizable to the Romans. Waiting for the answer is Spartacus's foe, the Roman General Crassus, played by Laurence Olivier. After a moment of silence, as Spartacus is about to give himself up to be crucified, one by one the slaves stand and announce "I am Spartacus!" -- signaling their willingness to share their compatriot's fate. The scene epitomizes courage, a willingness to take a stand when the all-too-easy thing to do would be to simply say nothing and get off the hook.
One of the grim facts of war is that one never knows where and when these moments will present themselves. The question always is: when presented with this moment, what would you do?
Most probably, you will never know until the moment arrives.
The passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 were presented with just such a moment on the opening day of this war. One minute they were average Americans flying peacefully from Newark to San Francisco on a beautiful late summer day. The next they found themselves shockingly confronted with their Spartacus moment. Four hijackers had taken over their plane during what the Americans quickly learned from family cell phone calls was an all out attack on their country. The World Trade Center towers were in flames, soon to collapse. The Pentagon had just had a jet ram into it. The plane they were on -- United 93 -- was clearly headed back East to Washington -- on target to destroy either the White House or the U.S. Capitol.
The fact that the story is history now doesn't make it any easier to recall. The passengers, doubtless scared witless, decided to rebel. They would not be passive participants in the destruction of their country. One by one they stood up and said, in effect, "I am Spartacus." Or, in the words of passenger Todd Beamer, "Let's roll." A horrific struggle raged, the plane went down in a farmer's field in Pennsylvania. Every single passenger and hijacker died. The White House and the United States Capitol, not to mention an unimagined number of lives on the ground, were spared.
"I am Spartacus," these people were saying to the rest of us. "I am Spartacus."
Comes now the tale of South Park, the irreverent, edgy and sometime (sometime??) offensive cartoon created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. The show is a staple of Comedy Central, where it regularly spends its air time, in the words of the New York Post, ridiculing "every sacred convention in the book, from major religions and celebrities to gays and the physically disabled." Which is to say, making full use of the First Amendment right to free expression.
As all of America now knows, Parker and Stone decided to do their thing with Islam and Mohammed, having their characters trying to decide how to portray Mohammed without, well, actually showing him. Which, of course, is forbidden in Islam. This being a comedy show, The Prophet finally shows up in a bear costume.
And in the blink of an eye, a Spartacus moment began to evolve. Again according to the Post, "a New York-based Web site, Revolution Muslim…'warned' Parker and Stone they would end up like Theo Van Gogh -- the Dutch filmmaker killed in 2004 by an Islamic terrorist after he made a film dealing with abuse of Muslim women."
Threatened now, Parker and Stone refused to back down. They prepared a response, inserted as part of the storyline in their next South Park episode. Kyle, the one Jewish kid in the mix (and modeled after co-creator Stone), was to have delivered a 35-second speech at show's end warning of "fear and intimidation." There was to be no mention of Mohammed.
And Comedy Central -- Cowardly Central as the Post promptly dubbed the network -- bleeped Kyle's little talk out completely. Parker and Stone have a statement on their website, found here.
Which brings us to Jon Stewart.
He the Braveheart who has dared to battle -- yes! Can you believe it!!!??? -- Fox News! Stewart is so daring, don't you know, so gutsy, so edgy he actually uses -- OMG! -- the F-bomb on the air! Wow! What a guy! How 1969! The New York Times, unsurprisingly quick to adore this kind of faux courage, responded with an adoring profile, calling this David of the Liberal Media "relentless" as he swings away at the Goliath Fox. Ooooooooo…look! He took on…Bernard Goldberg! Sarah Palin! What a guy! Dust off the next Profile in Courage Award, Caroline!
Then, out of the blue, Jon Stewart found himself in a situation that demanded not the faux courage to take on Fox News. This time, not unlike the passengers of United Flight 93, Stewart suddenly found himself staring his own Spartacus moment in the face. The real thing.
"It's their right," he said of Comedy Central in a verbal shrug of indifference. "We all serve at their pleasure." In a monologue punctuated by yuks, he defended the network by saying, "The censorship was a decision Comedy Central made, I think as a way to protect our employees from what they believe was any harmful repercussions to them….but again they sign the checks."
They sign the checks.
Now there's a Spartacus moment. "Hey, Spartacus babe, we luv ya, big guy. What a ride that revolt thing, huh? Listen, Sparky, I can't hang up on some cross somewhere. I'm doing the lion-in-the-arena thing next Friday. They tell me the place is sold out. So, well, you're sweet. Really. But General Crassus over there signs the checks, capiche? And, hey, we gotta protect our guys, right? Ahhh, General Crassus? Spartacus is the guy with the dimple-in-the-chin thing going. Front row center."
This Stewart response -- not to mention the response from the Comedy Central suits themselves -- is an unintentional snapshot into the mind of American liberalism. What to do about people who have committed mass murder in places like New York, Washington, Pennsylvania, Madrid, London, Bali, Baghdad, Mumbai, and Kabul -- and that only for starters while they figure out how to get their hands on a nuclear bomb or biological and chemical weapons?
Just look sternly into the camera, wring your hands, and say to these misguided people what Jon Stewart said to Revolution Muslim: "Your type of hatred and intolerance -- that's the enemy."
Take that Al Qaeda!
This is really quite remarkable, if in its own way quite predictable. Jon Stewart is by all accounts a nice guy, a talented guy, a smart guy. He has used The Daily Show to successfully carve out a niche as what his occasional Fox sparring partner Bill O'Reilly calls "a cornerstone of the liberal media in America." God bless America and Stewart's freedom.
Yet precisely because Stewart is viewed as the Lion of the Liberal Media, his wimpy response to an actual threat from a group presenting itself as just one more face of Islamic terror serves as a reminder of exactly why so many millions of Americans have come to mistrust President Obama or in fact any liberal when it comes to responding to America's enemies. After all the touchy-feely Obama outreach to Iran -- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad just continues to build his nuclear bombs anyway. Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry travel to Syria to make nice -- but long range Scud missiles will go to Hezbollah anyway. And so on. Electing Obama was presented as the change that would make precisely this kind of threat to South Park go away. Oops.
There is nothing new here, really. Same thin soup, different bowl. Neville Chamberlain hosts The Daily Show.
The problem is that instead of American national security or that of the West, we are talking about a slightly different issue yet one still vitally connected to the larger whole.
American and Western culture -- the good, the bad and the ugly of it over a few thousand centuries, from Plato to Parker and Shakespeare to Stone -- can thrive only in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom. That freedom, as has been made abundantly clear since 9/11, is under full scale assault.
Whether it's planes being rammed into buildings in the heart of the world's financial center or the latest move in Somalia to ban music, intellectual freedom is under attack. The attackers may be organized, they may be unorganized. They may have billions at their disposal, they may have a box cutter. But make no mistake, they are obsessed with the same thing -- achieving victory over the West and all it represents whatever the cost and however long it takes.
They do not care about the safety and security of Trey Parker and Matt Stone or Jon Stewart or Comedy Central or Fox or MSNBC or the best Jewish deli in Manhattan or the next cover girl for Sports Illustrated or any other production of Western culture. The objective is to kill the target of the moment -- and oh by the way, wipe out the rest of us too. No tactic is too small, no weapon big enough.
Which is why the fact that someone as smart as Jon Stewart closes his eyes hoping his sudden Spartacus moment will just somehow go away is disturbing.
This isn't going away. This is real. It has appeared countless times in human history, and it has reared its head once more. This time at Comedy Central, as unlikely as it might seem. Where the response was exactly the timelessly wrong answer.
The right answer is never to pretend that if you somehow were transported back in time, say to a house in Amsterdam in August of 1944 and the German Grüne Polizei were pounding at your door, you could get away with saying: "Hi. Fox News can %$#@@ themselves. You guys sign the checks. Seig Heil. Ann Frank is upstairs, third door to the right, the room behind the bookcase."
The right answer would be, the right answer is always: I am Ann Frank.
I am Spartacus.
I am Trey Parker. I am Matt Stone.
I am Jon Stewart. And I quit.