Eags is snarling at Big Love in today's post. It couldn't happen to a more deserving guy. If this is a (fair & balanced) diagnosis of political Aphtae Epizooticae, so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap]
The Burden Of Speech
By Timothy Egan
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A fanatic makes a hate movie, filled with wild claims about the founder of one of the world’s major religions. Fanatics of another sort are inflamed by the crude film, crying blasphemy.
Hatred flares. Mobs attack the embassy in Cairo, shouting there is no God but their God. Another mob attacks the sanctuary in Benghazi, Libya, a military-style assault, using the film as motivational cover. An extraordinary public servant, Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, is killed in the line of duty in a city he had helped to save from a dictator’s last gasp. Three other Americans are killed as well.
Who is to blame? The mobs, the attackers — clearly. Security forces as well, for allowing the fragile wall that separates a diplomat from street thugs to be breached. But what about the filmmaker who launched the first shot?
Beyond that, what to make of Mitt Romney, trying to score cheap political points before the bodies of the murdered American diplomats are even cold and hailing that odious film as an expression of “American values”?
What’s more, Romney’s craven attack was fundamentally dishonest, riddled with errors, and premised on notions that a kook would harbor. His response was no more accurate than the film.
Free speech — for all its liberating qualities, this founding virtue of ours imposes huge burdens on the speaker and comes with its own set of civil rules. In the Islamic world, people have no idea how much freedom Americans are given to say pretty much anything, true or not. Many don’t understand that a zealot’s YouTube provocation does not represent a government.
But we do know better in the United States. And so, it falls upon our leaders to educate the rest of the world about unfettered speech, its perils and wonders, by example.
In the case of the cartoonish film on the Prophet Muhammad — depicting him as a child molester, a liar and a buffoon — we still don’t know much about who is behind it. Steve Klein, a California insurance man with a long history of making erroneous claims about Islam, says he’s one of the backers. A Florida preacher, Terry Jones, who inspired deadly riots in Afghanistan by threatening to burn copies of the Koran, has come forth as a promoter of the film.
And when asked whether he bore any responsibility for the violence prompted by the incendiary film, Jones said his conscience was clear. No matter its exact provenance, the film is a hate-bullet, and we’ve had plenty of those in our history. Not long after the witch hunts of the 1950s, a good man in my home state of Washington was accused of being a Communist. Years later, his son’s family — Charles Goldmark, his wife and two kids — was slaughtered by a mentally deranged killer who believed the original libel and thought he was doing right by a delusional cause. How much blame did that speaker half a century ago, planting a falsehood that took to the winds over the years, have for the death of an entire family during a Christmas dinner in 1985?
Now to Romney. He had promised not to take political potshots on September 11, that most mournful of anniversaries. But he couldn’t help himself. But before the day was done, he fired off a statement bashing the commander in chief and the American Embassy at a moment of extreme peril. He did not have the dignity to wait for the families of those killed to be properly eulogized or the wisdom to wait for the facts.
This episode is the most revealing moment of the campaign. Remember, earlier this year Romney went after American diplomats just as they were trying — successfully, it turned out — to negotiate the freedom of a Chinese dissident.
But this is worse. A man who wants to control America’s nuclear arsenal can’t wait for the fog of a fatal attack to clear before popping off. He implied that the Cairo embassy, in sensibly releasing a statement condemning the hate film before any rioting had begun, equates to President Obama “sympathizing with mobs.”
He said, “It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn the attacks on our diplomatic mission, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
The Cairo embassy was taking emergency steps to save American lives, a pre-emptive move. “We firmly reject those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others” was the statement. They were educating — in a panic, possibly, knowing the anger in the Arab street — about the perils of free speech. No apology.
And since when is a clumsy, propagandish, inaccurate film an expression of “American values”?
Romney can’t see the facts for what they are because he’s persuaded that Obama’s foreign policy is one long apology tour. Nor does he have the good sense to stand down until he knows what he’s talking about, as did most of official Washington, Republican and Democrat.
Romney was left sputtering in the gutter with the dregs of his party. He was there with Sarah Palin, who used the tragedy to make cringe-worthy fun of and crude jokes about the president. Like Romney, she got her facts wrong, a professional trademark in her case. And he was there with Rush Limbaugh, who lauded him as a statesman.
Free speech, when it’s abused, can lead millions of people to believe a lie. Thus, up to a third or more of Republicans still tell pollsters that they think the president of the United States is not an American citizen. This is little different from ignorant Islamists who think the American government could be behind a blunt attack on their religion.
Don’t expect Romney to say he made a mistake; his last book, after all, is titled No Apology (2010). But a man who can’t say he’s sorry abused one of the biggest free speech opportunities in the world. His words were revealing, and in that sense he did voters a favor. Ω
[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]
Copyright © 2012 The New York Times Company
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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.
Copyright © 2012 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves