"Ever since those cartoons in Denmark, the rules have changed. Nobody shows an image of Muhammad anymore." When a character on the animated TV show South Park made that avowal a few weeks ago, he could easily have been speaking for media outlets across Europe and North America. This past winter's Cartoon Jihad occasioned far fewer robust defenses of press freedom than it did craven surrenders to the threats of radicals. Now, even South Park, Comedy Central's irreverent powerhouse, has felt the backlash.
Sometime in March, South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker approached network executives with their idea for an episode satirizing the Danish cartoon spat. Could they depict the Muslim prophet Muhammad on screen? No way, came the immediate reply. True, Comedy Central had allowed South Park to broadcast a Muhammad character five years earlier, in the episode "Super Best Friends." But that episode debuted on July 4, 2001 — just before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "A lot changed two months later," one source close to the show told me, explaining the network's decision. "It's a vastly different world that we live in right now." Yes: a world where terrorists apparently have veto power over American television.
Stone and Parker did not take Comedy Central's censorship lightly. They made the two "Cartoon Wars" episodes an acerbic rebuke to the network. At the moment Muhammad is poised to appear, the screen goes black, and a brief message announces that Comedy Central "has refused to broadcast" the prophet's image. When the censored episodes aired — on April 5 and April 12 — the blogosphere erupted with scathing indictments of the network's pusillanimity. Many conservatives also found a new reason to appreciate Stone and Parker's talents. "I'm not a fan of South Park," wrote Michelle Malkin after the April 5 show. "But the e-mails I've been getting all day from South Park viewers about last night's episode just might change my mind."
Part I of "Cartoon Wars" begins with Y2K-style pandemonium breaking loose, as South Park natives loot stores and hoard toilet paper before crowding into a community center. It turns out the Fox cartoon Family Guy is set to air an image of Muhammad, sparking riots across the Muslim world and leading a terrorist named al-Zawahri to vow swift retaliation. But at the last minute, Fox censors the Muhammad image, thus averting a showdown.
The four main South Park kids — Kyle, Stan, Kenny, and Cartman — trek to Kyle's house to watch the episode on TiVo. When Kyle's liberal parents catch them, his father smashes the TV with a baseball bat while his mother lectures them about "Muslim sensitivity training." Then the boys get word that Family Guy will be broadcasting another episode with Muhammad — this time, uncensored. Terrorist kingpin Zawahri warns against it, promising a "massive" response.