Americans are fond of quoting the English writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall who, writing under the pseudonym Stephen G. Tallentyre, summarized a viewpoint of Voltaire in the famous line: "I disapprove what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
And now, Americans are dying again. Is it over free speech, or something else?
Sam Bacile, a self-described Israeli Jew whose $5m film was apparently shown at full length exactly once to a mostly-empty theater in Hollywood, reportedly said "Islam is a cancer, period" when interviewed about the film and the subsequent attacks in Egypt and in Libya. At the time of this writing, Sam Bacile is reportedly in hiding. With respect to the American deaths in the Middle East, he responded "I feel the security system is no good. America should do something about it."
Steve Klein, who consulted on the film, said he'd predicted to Bacile that "you're going to be the next Theo van Gogh." In the wake of the cartoon controversy, great prescience seems unnecessary to have reached Klein's conclusion.
So, what about it?
A film whose purpose is to denounce the world's largest and fastest-growing religion appears to be the very sort of speech in which the First Amendment was designed to keep the government from involving itself as an arbiter of truth or propriety. The fact that we treasure the right to speak freely need not mean we necessarily celebrate crummy film. (Surely YouTube has clips from which the quality of the thing will speak for itself.) In Egypt, where attacks began yesterday, the U.S. embassy said 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."
But is this about the film, really?
From the campaign trail, Romney (in a prepared statement) seized on an opportunity to say something related to foreign policy after seemingly neglecting it at the recent Republican Convention:
I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacksMaybe the folks at the Embassy were trying to save their skins by saying something politically correct rather than offering to spill their scarce blood in defense of bad film they'd never seen. Clearly caught flat-footed by events – which were incited by non-government actors, and perpetrated by foreigners, leaving the current administration without a lot of basis for predicting things unless it had advanced intelligence of effort to incite attack – the Obama campaign predictably returned a counter-attack:
We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack.Really? Shocked? During campaign season?
But back to the topic: a deliberately inflammatory movie was made by people intending to discredit a religion well-known for its inclusion of adherents willing to kill over suspected slights to the religion. Consider the recent failed attempt to have a mentally disabled Christian girl executed for blasphemy by planting burned Koran pages in her possession, and the ensuing death threats aimed at the girl's entire family after the falsity of the charges led to her release; the entire family fled their home for fear of being burned alive within. And they were victims of a false-charge plot. So, what should we think about people who deliberately provoke trigger-happy murderers from the safety of our borders?
In this country, we're allowed to think anything we like about them.
The real question is, what should we do about them.
If makers of the film had screamed falsely about a terrorist bomb on a crowded train platform to incite a fatal stampede, we'd have them for a homicide. But in this country, publishing that major prophets are frauds is simply not an offense. Whether there's any truth in the claim isn't the government's concern. Even the genuineness of publisher's beliefs aren't subject to investigation. They are permitted to say anything they like on politico-religious topics, and it's the job of viewers to accord each publication its proper weight.
In this case, the film played to a mostly empty theater – once. It's fairly clear nobody is being persuaded by anything the film has to say. Rather, the film's most zealous audience is one that never saw the thing at all – they just heard through the grapevine that the film insulted their (presumably cherished) religious figures. There's no risk the film will confuse the public about an important religious truth. There's only a risk the film will incite people who don't believe in the value of free speech.
And that's why the United States must take a clear and firm line on the issue. The United States did not participate in or approve of the publication of this or any other film advocating for or against any religious view. The United States' law that prevents prosecution for films that incite a strong religious response is the very sale law that protects genuine religious adherents from persecution for espousing their most sacred beliefs. The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms murders motivated by hatred of the exercise of nonviolent free speech.
The makers of the movie – funded by supporters sharing a common faith of their own – surely knew they were stirring a hornet's nest. Murderers willing to serve time may pursue the film's authors for years – Salman Rusdie has survived over two decades of death threats – but no-one will be able to guarantee his safety. But there can be absolutely nothing to be gained by trying to accommodate murderers and would-be murders by turning over to their care a taxpaying resident of the United States – and even less to be gained by pretending to agree with their grievances.
And what are those grievances? The disabled Christian girl in whose garbage bag burned Koran pages were planted was guilty of being part of a Christian community that annoyed its majority-Muslim neighbors with the sound of Sunday hymns. The ambassador murdered in Libya was guilty of supporting the revolutionaries that toppled Ghadafi and installed the current government. The actual targets of the supposedly religious violence aren't even the source of the claimed offense: they are political symbols.
And when enemies of free speech carry on a political dispute with violence, they carry on a war. The deep questions for the United States revolve around the targets of this war, its proponents, and the extent to which the United States is willing to be drawn into waging it. The last time the United States was drawn into declaring a murder to be an act of war and responding in kind, it boosted the prestige and the recruiting power of the very enemy it sought to suppress. (Of course, is a real invasion any better than propaganda? Consider the justification given by bin Laden for his fatwa against Americans.) Or did it?
What response is merited now?
Well, it doesn't look like the Libya attack was a reprisal for free speech but a calculated attack by an al Quaida affiliate in response to an al Zawahiri plea for retaliatory murder following earlier militant killings in Libya. The unarmed flag-snatching invasion of the U.S. embassy in Egypt is a stark contrast to the RPG-supported militant attack in Libya. The Egyptian protests may really be inspired by fury the U.S. "permitted" someone to make an anti-Islamic video. So the two events, being dramatically different, may merit wholly different responses.
In Libya, the local government agrees the murders were crimes and has pledged to take the steps needed to obtain justice. What is there left to do but provide support to the local sovereign as it keeps the peace? (Okay, maybe a lot of support, including from the air. But hunting militants isn't a change of policy, is it?)
In Egypt, the ruling party has "called for" further protests at the U.S. embassy, after prayers Friday. Interestingly, the call isn't for blood in the streets, but for Islamists to show up with signs and chants. Egypt can have free speech, too – a departure from the Mubaruk era in which protesters would never have been permitted near the embassy. It's interesting that Egypt's government hasn't made any big plea for respect for the U.S. tradition of nonviolent free speech, or an effort to urge the population to distinguish between the U.S. and those people who exercise their freedoms within its borders. Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood party will get points for "sticking it to the man" by organizing a march past the embassy, even as it protects the embassy with troops. Have we considered moving the flagpole so the next group of climbers won't easily replace it with their own banner?
The conclusion seems straightforward: from a policy standpoint, we do nothing different than we did before. From an operational standpoint, we continue to refine procedures to accomplish the same things with less risk to personnel.
But from a political standpoint, we have the interesting conundrum of how to paint events publicly so we don't shower our most successful enemies in attention that will improve their future capabilities, or seem weak when confronted by enemies of the idea we should defend even worthless works' right to publication by willing publishers, or seem so hawkish we drive people into the arms of our enemies. Traditionally, we've been awful at propaganda. The rest of the conflict with the Islamofascists will be interesting to watch.
UPDATE: Not that the attacks needed a crummy film to motivate them, but it seems the producer deceived the actors about the nature of the film and the word "Muhammed" was dubbed in during post-production. The film's name in production was apparently Desert Warriors. At least one actor has declared she'll sue. On the set, Mr. Bacile claimed to be Egyptian. Was someone trying to incite violence by making a film they knew would get people hurt? If so, that First Amendment won't be much help . . . .