(Photo courtesy of NY Times)
Yesterday, on the eleventh anniversary of the terror attacks on September 11, radicals attacked the U.S. Embassy in Cairo , scaling the walls, tearing down the flag and replacing it with their own flag; radicals also attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing four people, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens. In both countries, the rioters/radicals claimed that they were angry over a movie trailer, critical of Islam and portraying Muslims as Christian-hating thugs, that appeared on YouTube over the weekend.
Initial reports indicated that an embassy spokesperson and the White House had issued an apology for the film. According to CNN “…said in a statement that it ‘condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.’ ‘Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy,’ the statement said. ‘We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.’” On its face, the statement demonstrates a failure to understand the concept of free speech: “…those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” First of all, how does an insult hurt one’s religious beliefs? If your beliefs are so shaky that insults hurt your actual beliefs, perhaps you should reexamine those beliefs. If the embassy meant that statement to imply that free speech includes a “right” to never be insulted by the words or actions of others, then there is a profound misunderstanding of free speech. In the real world, in which the majority of thinking people operate, insults come with the territory. Using the threat of violence to blackmail those with whom you disagree into silence, is censorship pure and simple. Secondly, it is not possible to “abuse the universal right of free speech;” hurling insults whether directly at someone or through a movie are the very definition of free speech.
Fundamentalists use the threat of violence and violent retaliation in order to silence critics and to avoid any in-depth examination of practices or goals, and the U.S. has been complicit in that process by issuing apologies for the actions of Americans who are exercising their constitutionally protected right of free speech (note that the “movie” was made and release in the United States – it is protected).
Some will say that the “filmmaker” (if you can call a 13 minute trailer a film – it’s atrocious, but Rich Galen has a link for viewing: ; I couldn’t get through more than two minutes it’s so bad) should have realized the consequences that came from posting his film. Perhaps, but insults, even to a religion, cannot justify attacks on an embassy and a consulate and the killing of a U.S. Ambassador and three other Americans.
Secretary Clinton stated, “Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet…The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.” That these attacks happened on September 11, I believe, is no accident. The trailer appeared over the weekend and was replayed by imans in Egypt and elsewhere. “It isn’t a matter of freedom of speech,” Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Gozlan said. “It’s a matter of a holy Islamic symbol.” Free speech means that nothing is sacred or off limits (with the exceptions noted in this country of incitement), nothing. Islam does not get a pass where Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. do not. If we are to uphold such freedoms we cannot appear to weaken in the face of threats
We teach our children to stand up to bullies on school playgrounds. We, as a country, as a people, and as a government should be standing up to bullies in the international arena.
Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends of Ambassador Stevens and the others killed in Libya.
UPDATES: The US Embassy in Yemen has been attacked as well. There is credible information that the attack in Libya was a planned hit. The US is investigating. And, finally, the US Embassies in Tunisia and Algeria, reporting that they have information regarding planned protests on those embassies are telling staff to avoid crowded public areas.