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Netherlands' trouble: too much tolerance

Can a threatened society rally to its own defense? Or will political correctness paralyze the survival instinct?

Those are questions being asked here in the Netherlands, where an experiment in no-questions-asked multiculturalism is coming to an end. And, if it ends here, it will likely end in other European countries without Holland's deep tradition of freedom and asylum.

My first inkling that Holland was wide open came when nobody checked my passport when I got off the train from Belgium. My second clue was that in days of wandering around the downtown Zentrum, I didn't see a single policeman on the street.

Indeed, Amsterdam looks like pre-Giuliani Times Square. Within a few blocks, I passed by "museums" for tattoos, for torture, for hashish _ and, of course, several for sex. And did I mention the prostitutes who sit on display behind huge windows? Or the 258 registered "coffee shops," which allow marijuana smoking on the premises?

But Amsterdam's problem isn't too much tawdriness. Instead, it's too much tolerance _ for the intolerant and for the intolerable. The crisis in Holland came to the world's attention on Nov. 2, when Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh _ great grand-nephew of the painter _ was brutally shot and stabbed in broad daylight by a Dutch Muslim. There's little doubt about the details of the slaying, since the man, Mohammed Bouyeri, confessed _ bragged might be a better word _ to the killing. And many in the Dutch Muslim community, mostly hailing from Morocco, were conspicuous in their refusal to condemn the crime.

One immediate reaction from the ethnic Dutch was a spasm of anti-Muslim violence. Some 20 mosques and schools were attacked and vandalized. Fortunately, no serious injuries or deaths resulted.

Yet a second reaction has been a continuation of the standard Dutch touchy-feely. In December, students at a high school held a "group hug" as a "tonic against hate and violence in the country." And, although the churches in Holland are notoriously empty, the Nieuwe Kerk in the middle of "A'dam" has recently been jammed. Why? Because it features an exhibit on Moroccan culture.

An observer wonders if efforts at cross-cultural understanding have come at the expense of homeland security. All the group hugs and special exhibits notwithstanding, ethnic problems seem to be getting worse, along with crime and chronic unemployment. Of the million or so Muslims in this country of 17-million, only a few are openly hostile, but many are poorly assimilated into Dutch culture.

Yet Muslims loom huge in Holland's demographic future. In the cities, more than half of the schoolchildren are Muslim. Meanwhile, a steady stream of new immigrants trickles in from the Muslim world, situated just on the other side of the Mediterranean.

And so to one further reaction to the killing of van Gogh: Get tough. The right-of-center government has imposed new laws. Effective New Year's Day, for example, anyone in Holland over age 14 must show identification to authorities if asked _ although, of course, it's a moot point if there are no cops to do the asking. But that's changing: The Dutch equivalent of the FBI is hiring another 500 functionaries.

Significantly, the political left is mostly supportive of these stern measures. A Socialist Party leader, Wouter Bos, says the Dutch were "naive" prior to Nov. 2, but now they have recognized that the threat of Muslim violence is "an international phenomenon that will long be with us."

Yet the most compelling figure in Netherlander politics was herself born a Muslim. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an immigrant from Somalia, was genitally mutilated as a girl, according to cruel tribal custom. Having worked with the late van Gogh on a documentary film critical of Islam, she now serves as a right-tilting member of the Dutch parliament.

By virtue of her own story, Hirsi Ali offers Holland its best hope for peaceful accommodation through tougher-minded assimilation _ in other words, an end to naive multiculturalism. Unless one of the many death threats against her is successfully carried out.

James Pinkerton is a Newsday columnist.

Special to Newsday; distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service