Two months before 9/11, Comedy Central aired an episode of "South Park" entitled "Super Best Friends," in which the cartoon show's foul-mouthed urchins sought assistance from an unusual team of superheroes. These particular superfriends were all religious figures: Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Mormonism's Joseph Smith, Taoism's Lao-tse — and the Prophet Muhammad, depicted with a turban and a 5 o'clock shadow, and introduced as "the Muslim prophet with the powers of flame."
That was a more permissive time. You can't portray Muhammad on American television anymore, as South Park's creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, discovered in 2006, when they tried to parody the Danish cartoon controversy — in which unflattering caricatures of the prophet prompted worldwide riots — by scripting another animated appearance for Muhammad. The episode aired, but the cameo itself was blacked out, replaced by an announcement that Comedy Central had refused to show an image of the prophet.
For Parker and Stone, the obvious next step was to make fun of the fact that you can't broadcast an image of Muhammad. Two weeks ago, "South Park" brought back the "super best friends," but this time Muhammad never showed his face. He "appeared" from inside a U-Haul trailer, and then from inside a mascot's costume.
These gimmicks then prompted a writer for the New York-based Web site revolutionmuslim.com to predict that Parker and Stone would end up like Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker murdered in 2004 for his scathing critiques of Islam. The writer, an American convert to Islam named Abu Talhah Al-Amrikee, didn't technically threaten to kill them himself. His post, and the accompanying photo of van Gogh's corpse, was just "a warning ... of what will likely happen to them."
This passive-aggressive death threat provoked a swift response from Comedy Central. In last week's follow-up episode, the prophet's non-appearance appearances were censored, and every single reference to Muhammad was bleeped out. The historical record was quickly scrubbed as well: The original "Super Best Friends" episode is no longer available on the Internet.
In a way, the muzzling of "South Park" is no more disquieting than any other example of Western institutions' cowering before the threat of Islamist violence. It's no worse than the German opera house that temporarily suspended performances of Mozart's opera "Idomeneo" because it included a scene featuring Muhammad's severed head. Or Random House's decision to cancel the publication of a novel about the prophet's third wife. Or Yale University Press's refusal to publish the controversial Danish cartoons ... in a book about the Danish cartoon crisis. Or the fact that various Western journalists, intellectuals and politicians — the list includes Oriana Fallaci in Italy, Michel Houellebecq in France, Mark Steyn in Canada and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands — have been hauled before courts and "human rights" tribunals, in supposedly liberal societies, for daring to give offense to Islam.
But there's still a sense in which the "South Park" case is particularly illuminating. Not because it tells us anything new about the lines that writers and entertainers suddenly aren't allowed to cross. But because it's a reminder that Islam is just about the only place where we draw any lines at all.
Across 14 on-air years, there's no icon "South Park" hasn't trampled, no vein of shock-comedy (sexual, scatalogical, blasphemous) it hasn't mined. In a less jaded era, its creators would have been the rightful heirs of Oscar Wilde or Lenny Bruce — taking frequent risks to fillet the culture's sacred cows.
In ours, though, even Parker's and Stone's wildest outrages often just blur into the scenery. In a country where the latest hit movie, "Kick-Ass," features an 11-year-old girl spitting obscenities and gutting bad guys while dressed in pedophile-bait outfits, there isn't much room for real transgression. Our culture has few taboos that can't be violated, and our establishment has largely given up on setting standards in the first place.
Except where Islam is concerned. There, the standards are established under threat of violence, and accepted out of a mix of self-preservation and self-loathing.
This is what decadence looks like: a frantic coarseness that "bravely" trashes its own values and traditions, and then knuckles under swiftly to totalitarianism and brute force.
Happily, today's would-be totalitarians are probably too marginal to take full advantage. This isn't Weimar Germany, and Islam's radical fringe is still a fringe, rather than an existential enemy.
For that, we should be grateful. Because if a violent fringe is capable of inspiring so much cowardice and self-censorship, it suggests that there's enough rot in our institutions that a stronger foe might be able to bring them crashing down.