Troy, New York, has its own little free-speech controversy that you may hear of soon. It seems that Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) was to host a "Virtual Jihadi" exhibit by one Wafaa Bilal, but canceled the show after locals protested that it was "wrong, un-American and destructive."
Wafaa Bilal appears to be a conceptual artist, someone whose college degree entitles him to label anything he produces as "art" so long as a critic can find something to talk about in it. His past work marks him as a sort of Arabic David Blaine, allowing himself, for instance, to be a live target for virtual paintball shooters. "Virtual Jihadi" was born when Bilal adapted an American video game, "Quest for Saddam," that had already been adapted by al-Qaida hackers into "The Night of Bush Capturing." Bilal's contribution is to turn the main character of the al-Qaida game into himself, garbed in a suicide vest and reportedly assigned to blow up President Bush.
The artist told the Troy Record that "he wants Americans to understand the plight of Iraqis and his intent was to spark dialogue" by getting people out of their "comfort zone." It remains unclear from the newspaper account exactly what sort of dialogue he meant to spark. It's even less clear whether he's willing to engage in dialogue with those who've condemned his installation.
Bilal has moved "Virtual Jihadi" to the Sanctuary for Independent Media, an admirable institution that inhabits a former church in the North Central section of town. The grand re-opening this evening was scheduled to be picketed by some patriotic citizens, including the majority leader of the Rensselaer County legislature. Photos I saw in the newsroom before I left work showed counterdemonstrators protesting in defense of free speech and against a "Republican Fatwa."
As you might suspect, I suspect that, as an artist, Wafaa Bilal is just another academic hustler with an effective line of bull that obscures his lack of real creativity. I have no use for his exhibit, but when I hear people in the office erupt with hatred for the very concept of challenging perceptions of the war, my Voltairean instinct kicks in. On they came: Duffy the Ancient Sportswriter ("They should blow up that sanctuary"); Mr. Peepers ("You see what happens when we let those foreigners into this country"); and, of course, Mr. Right, for whom this was a reprise of the controversy over the British "Death of a President" movie of two years ago. To him, it is a form of lese-majeste (he calls it "bad taste") to even imagine the assassination of George W. Bush. Of course, there are probably plenty of hack thriller novels that imagine the same possibility, but they get a pass, I suspect, because they probably portray people protecting the poor man. To actually imagine him getting killed, Mr. Right seems to think, suggests that you want him dead.
Inevitably, he had to turn this into another case of liberal hypocrisy. He's convinced that most people who defend Bilal's free speech when it insults Bush would want his head or the head of anyone who portrayed a fictional assassination of the sainted Clintons. He warned me that I don't dare deny this because he believed I wasn't so naive. I might have felt challenged to research the matter and unearth fictional Clinton assassinations and the liberal outrage against them if I thought I might find anything. Overall, I felt it was all too easy for Mr. Right to make that claim without any evidence to back him up.
I shouldn't have expected anything different from any of these characters. At the same time, my sympathy for Bilal can only go so far, since this is exactly the reaction he probably wanted. In fairness, however, I'll give him the last word. "I wonder why RPI is outraged over a video game instead of the 800,000 Iraqis and 4,000 Americans killed during the war," he said.
I'm feeling generous tonight, so here are more last words from Mr. Bilal, thanks to YouTube: