“If your freedom of speech has no limits, may you accept our freedom of action.”
This was a statement painted on a wall in Cairo where protestors yesterday stormed the U.S. embassy. And this morning, we learn that U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens was killed along with three other embassy staff in a rocket attack on their car. These acts and other protests in the Middle East are in response to a film, The Innocence of Muslims, that supposedly contains insulting depictions of the prophet Muhammad and was recently promoted by the Muslim-bashing, Florida pastor Terry Jones.
This is a travesty in the world of diplomacy as much as it may also be a painful examination into the nature of free speech. It is a terrible thing when thoughtful leaders and diplomats have to avoid starting wars because the worst of us has inflamed the worst of them, but is there anything we can learn from this?
The First Amendment protects Jones’s right to be a colossal son of a bitch and the Israeli filmmaker Sam Bacile* to spew whatever nonsense he chooses. As Americans, we value the sanctity of speech to the extent that we must endure hate speak for what it is and know that it does not represent who most of us are. And I, for one, would not have it any other way. To the Middle East citizens who have risen in protest, however, no such distinctions are made. Their cultural indignation resulted first in protest, which is speech, and then in assassination of four members of our State Department, which is not.
Is this a digital age story? I think so. Jones and Bacile enjoy the same, free tools as everyone else for disseminating their venom, and they wound up killing American public servants and creating a diplomatic nightmare for the State Department. If that isn’t an example of the dangers of amateur kooks wielding powerful communication tools writ large, I don’t know what is. I have no thesis to offer, only an invitation to share your thoughts. Certainly, it is clear in moments like this that while speech should always be free, it can run smack into some very substantial limits without anyone passing a single law.
*UPDATE: The story keeps getting stranger. Bacile may not even exist. Read this from The Atlantic.
FURTHER UPDATE: Reports today (9/13) indicate that the Libyan attack on the American consulate may have been planned, possibly even for 9/11, and that the attackers seized on the opportunity of the protests against the film. At this point, the attack is still being investigated, and no party has claimed responsibility.
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