"Innocence of Muslims" Demonstrates Dangers of Free Speech

September 17, 2012

François-Marie Arouet, the 18th century French philosopher better known as Voltaire, was an outspoken supporter of free speech and social reform. His ideas influenced both the American and French Revolutions. Perhaps his best-remembered quote was "I disagree strongly with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Chris Stevens might have found great irony in that credo. Free speech killed him, and three co-workers.

Oh, sure, the announced cause of death of the US Ambassador to Libya was asphyxiation, a result of the fire in the American Consulate in Benghazi. The fire set by Muslim extremists who stormed the building in protest over a mysterious American-made movie, " Innocence of Muslims", portraying the prophet Mohammad as a womanizer, buffoon, ruthless killer, and child molester. A movie that exists only because America stands for free speech.

It doesn't seem to matter to protestors that the film was the work of one hard-core sicko. The US, the Beacon of Freedom to the world, is the devil, as usual. Our free speech allows even hard-core sickos to express their opinions.

Stevens, a long-time diplomat in the Middle East, had been assigned to help the US try to rebuild relations with former dictator Moammar Gadhafi. But in 2011, with the revolution gaining momentum, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked him to become the liaison to the rebel opposition. "He risked his life to stop a tyrant, then gave his life trying to help build a better Libya," said Clinton.

That better Libya included something forbidden under Gadhafi - free speech. The same free speech that separates American values from much of the Arab world. The self-proclaimed Religion of Peace takes a dim view of criticism of Mohammad. If certain elements of Islam are offended, they simply kill. Indiscriminately. Ironically, Stevens was probably Libya's best friend in the US.

Ironically, the ultra-low budget movie that sparked the entire explosion was an elaborate deception. The true identity of the producer, a Muslim-hating Coptic Christian on probation from a 2010 bank fraud conviction, was unknown to everyone involved. He has used the names Sam Bassiel, Sam Bassil, Sam Bacile, Abenob Nakoula Bassely, Nakoula Basseley, Nakoula Mark Basseley, Yousseff M. Basseley, Nicola Bacily, Malid Ahlawi, Thomas J. Tanas, Ahmad Hamdy and Erwin Salameh,. The 80 actors and crew members thought they were making an adventure film set 2000 years ago called "Desert Warrior", and were furious to discover that their dialogue had been changed, and the Mohammad character added later.

Hardly anyone came to the Los Angeles screening this summer. But after a 14-minute trailer was posted on YouTube in July, it was promoted by Terry Jones, the Florida pastor whose Quran-burning last year sparked deadly riots in Afghanistan. Jones claimed that "The film is not intended to insult the Muslim community, but it is intended to reveal truths about Mohammed that are possibly not widely known". Once Egyptian television translated portions of it, Islamic radicals reacted predictably. The US embassy was attacked in Cairo, then the consulate in Benghazi, then US embassies in a half-dozen other countries. And Chris Stevens died.

Ironically, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top dog in the military of our Beacon of Freedom (including free speech), called Jones to ask him to withdraw his support for the film. The reason: "Jones' support of the film risks causing more violence and death". It was a government request, not a government order, but this entire tragic episode again invites us to consider the conditions, and dangers, of free speech.

It is well established that there are some limits: commercial speech is never protected. Political speech always is, except for advocating the overthrow of the government. Hate crimes are an evolving concept. The fuzziest areas are when public health and safety are involved; yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater could land you in the pokey. But how about yelling "Mohammad was a child molester" to a crowd of Western-hating Islamic extremists in countries where the government has little real control of the militias, and population in general?

Alas, free speech for individuals carries enormous responsibilities for our population as a whole. Voltaire was never asked to actually defend someone else's "right to say it" to the death. But any of us, like Chris Stevens, could be. We must be able to endure words that make our blood boil. We must permit Nazis to march in Skoie, Illinois, the Ku Klux Klan to demonstrate peacefully in front of southern churches, and the Westboro Baptist Church to protest at military funerals (sans bullhorns). Then we can we say that freedom of speech really exists here.

And, frankly, in today's world, we don't have much choice. "Innocence of Muslims" literally appeared from nowhere, enabled by our social media society. YouTube blocked it after the riots started, but it is impossible to put the fertilizer back into the horse. As CNN reported "Some protesters say they have not seen any of the online film, they were incensed by reports of its depiction of the Prophet Mohammed." And with a volatile Islamic population just waiting for the next jihad, anyone in America with an idiot cause and a laptop can do this all over again. Ask Terry Jones. Like Stevens, we are the victims of our own free speech.

You would hope that our politicians would be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Sadly, you would be disappointed. Mitt Romney's campaign (which has offered no foreign policy of its own) immediately reacted to the embassy attack in Cairo with knee-jerk press releases criticizing President Obama. Our embassy had released a statement condemning "Innocence of Muslims". The Romney campaign twisted this into Obama Apologizes For America. "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 attacks."

So if Romney was condemning the embassy statement that condemned offensive speech against Muslims, where does Romney stand on the offensive video? "We'll defend also our constitutional rights of speech and assembly and religion," he said. "We encourage our nations to understand and respect the principles of our Constitution because we recognize that these principles are the ultimate source of freedom for individuals around the world."

Politi-babble. But CNN obtained talking points from the Romney campaign in which they advise Republicans on how to respond to the press over the issue. The document suggests Republicans be prepared to answer this question: "Don't you think it was appropriate for the embassy to condemn the controversial movie in question? Are you standing up for movies like this?" The answer prompts the responder to say that Romney "rejects the reported message of the movie," but to add "we will not apologize for our constitutional right to freedom of speech."

So which way is it? Apparently, when the embassy criticized the movie, it was Obama sleeping with the enemy. But when Romney "rejects the reported message of the movie", he is standing up for US values.

Remember when President Jimmy Carter ordered Operation Eagle Claw in 1980 to rescue the American hostages in the US Embassy in Iran? It had to be aborted, and eight US servicemen died in a mid-air collision. Ronald Reagan didn't take the opportunity to score political points. Instead, he said, "This is the time for us as a nation and a people to stand united". Likewise, George H.W. Bush, then also running for president, said "I unequivocally support the president of the United States, no ifs, ands or buts, and it certainly is not a time to try to go one-up politically. He made a difficult, courageous decision".

Chris Stevens made a courageous decision to devote his life to helping Libya. Ironically, our heritage of free speech killed him.