The eruption of violence in North Africa that resulted in the brutal killing of the United States Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and three others began Tuesday in Cairo, Egypt when a mob of protesters stormed the U.S. embassy, tearing down the American flag and replacing it with an Islamist flag. The protests came in response to a film that denigrates Islam and the prophet Mohammed.
As the violence spreads and officials work to determine the exact circumstances surrounding Stevens’s death, debate is raging over what constitutes the appropriate U.S. response.
Nearly universally condemned has been the apologetic response that was put out by the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Diplomat Larry Schwartz, the author of the statement, apparently went rogue, publishing it despite explicit instruction to the contrary. The statement says, in part, that the embassy “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims…” and that, “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
President Obama himself has disavowed the statement, and both he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have said that despite the grossly offensive nature of the film in question, the violence is totally unjustified. Secretary Clinton even delivered a primer on the First Amendment, noting that the US does not “stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland asked the media to disseminate Clinton’s comments in the hopes that those unfamiliar with American culture and society will understand why the movie is protected speech.
But Nuland’s instructions belie a complete lack of understanding of the extremists who turn violent in response to an offense against their religion.
This is certainly not the first, nor will it be the last time that something like this has happened. Who could forget the turmoil caused by the Danish cartoons in 2006? Those with longer memories will recall a similar imbroglio after Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. In these instances, just as now, freedom of speech permitted offensive portrayals of Mohammed.
The problem is not that those who resort to violence do not understand free speech—it is that they do not believe in its value. Freedom of speech emerges from the liberal tradition that extremists firmly reject. Whereas radical Islamists call for strict devotion and duty to a perverted form of Islam, liberalism centers on the individual and his right to do as he pleases so long as he does not interfere with another.
In America freedom of speech was born out of this understanding of liberalism. We trust the individual’s capacity to reason and therefore say what he thinks. In many instances this results in gravely offensive and depraved things like the film that started the riots. But that is the price we pay to live in a free and open society.
This film is causing untold damage to lives and property, something that the individual who made it will have to bear on his conscience (and potentially criminally if recent reports of a government probe are accurate). But the blame and responsibility for this violence falls squarely on those who are committing it. “Hurt feelings,” as Schwartz called them, are no excuse for violent rage nor are they cause for censorship.
Liberalism contends that men are rational beings. We must hold them accountable as such.