On one hand, the cartoons are clearly offensive (as President Bush has pointed out), and should not have been published in the first place. Not just offensive - in Islam, it's blasphemy. Not that I even got them - I looked through them to see what the fuss was about, but, not speaking European, I had no idea what they were trying to say. But I'll take on faith that they're really insulting to Moslems. And just like any any other cartoons that target a particular group (ethnic/religious/hat size/whatever), they (by which I specifically mean the originals) were inappropriate to publish.
But. The violent reaction across the world has been overreaction ad absurdum. It's even being called a "Cartoon Crisis". And I understand the decisions by newspapers in Europe to publish the cartoons. They are now an essential part of the story (a story that now involves people getting hurt and killed), and the public needs to know the full story.
And freedom of speech is very much an issue here. There is a world of difference between saying (as I did) that cartoons should not be published versus saying that the cartoons should not be allowed to be published. They are insulting, but they are not inciting, which I think is as good a criteria for free speech as it's going to get.
And if you want a homegrown example of blasphemy, there's always Conan O'Brien with "Bungee-jumping Baby Jesus", "Gun-Toting, NASCAR Driving Jesus", and "Bar Bar Glinks". Have you heard of those? I didn't think so. Or at least not in the same context, by far.
Then there's this (from the BBC):
[A picture that] showed the Prophet with the face of a pig... has circulated in the Middle East (The BBC was caught out and for a time showed film of this in Gaza without realizing it was not one of the 12). This picture, a fuzzy grey photocopy, [which] can now be traced back (suspicion having been confirmed by an admission) to a delegation of Danish Muslim leaders who went to the Middle East in November to publicise the cartoons. The visit was organised by Abu Laban, a leading Muslim figure in Denmark.
And NeanderNews reported that the picture is actually from some French "pig squealing" contest. Right. Anyway, to me, that's incitement - using fraud to deliberately fan the flames.
And even worse, there's this (via an excellent column by Andrew Sullivan): "[D]emonstrators in London held up signs proclaiming EXTERMINATE THOSE WHO MOCK ISLAM and BE PREPARED FOR THE REAL HOLOCAUST." 'Nuff said (he also has this great line: "Freedom means learning to deal with being offended.")
I just wanted to point out something interesting that I noticed - the Europeans, who are generally accused by Americans of pandering, are taking a much more aggressive stance on this issue than the Americans - to my knowledge, the cartoons haven't been published in the mainstream media, and the administration has come out strong against the cartoons, despite its "clash of civilizations" statements in the past.
So that's basically it - obviously, this has gone well past the issue of political correctness. It's about intimidation and fascism now. As much as we don't want to admit it, it really is an example of a "clash of civilizations", and only ours has freedom of the press.