Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In Defense of Free Speech

Years ago I found myself wandering the streets of Dublin down to the big Eason bookstore on O’Connell Street. In celebration of the bookstore’s anniversary, some well-known authors had been invited to read excerpts from their recent books in public and sign autographs. My own specific reason for going was to hear Neil Jordan, one of the announced authors. Unfortunately, Jordan was a no-show. He had to bail because he is also a film director, and he was unable to break free from his production duties.

I was disappointed, but my disappointment turned to pleasant surprise when I learned that his unannounced replacement was none other than the Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie. At that time, seeing Rushdie was not easy to do. In 1989 Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa, or edict, demanding Rushdie’s execution because his novel The Satanic Verses was deemed to be an insult to Islam. He spent nearly a decade in hiding and still has to be careful because the fatwa has never been lifted. In fact, within the last several days an Iranian religious foundation upped the reward for Rushdie’s killing. The justification was something that Rushdie had absolutely nothing to do with, a 14-minute YouTube video.

Calling for a writer’s death because of something he has written is crazy. Increasing the incentive for killing that writer because of a video that has nothing to do with him is even crazier. The reason for the fatwa was always clear. It was meant to intimidate any writer anywhere in the world when it comes to writing about one particular religion. The reason for the mass protests against the YouTube video across the Moslem world is also clear. A particular anti-democratic movement is using the video as a pretext to show force in the streets and intimidate governments and individuals.

The right response from western governments is to denounce the violence and the resulting deaths. The video should be ignored as the irrelevancy that it is. If it is mentioned at all, it should be in the context of emphasizing support for human rights around the world, including freedom of speech.

But you may ask, isn’t that irresponsible? If the video is inflaming passions in the Moslem street, shouldn’t western leaders do whatever they can to calm things down? I suppose the answer is yes, if they have a clue as to how to calm things down. But the American government doesn’t seem to. While statements from the president and secretary of state rightly condemned the violence, that condemnation was expressed as an afterthought in the course of condemning the video in forceful terms. The two of them went so far to buy television time in Pakistan to denounce the video. Basically, the U.S. government has been buying into the extremist narrative that western attitudes and values are the root of the problem.

The reality is that many, if not most, people protesting will not have seen the video and only know what they have been told by local media and other local sources. The U.S. government has only heightened the video’s profile and significance. And if people abroad cannot believe that such a video could be produced in America without government approval, they will not have been disabused of that impression by the spectacle of the man believed to be the filmmaker being led out of his home by a contingent of Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies in the middle of the night. He was questioned and released, but compare this to the French government’s response when the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo ran more of its infamous cartoons of Islam’s prophet in response to the reaction to the video. The government offered the magazine protection.

Let us be clear. The man who made the video is sleazeball and his intentions were malign. Worse, he duped his cast and put them in danger. If you have seen the video, you know that the acting is very broad, almost like a spoof. And the dialog that means to offend was crudely dubbed in and was not spoken by the onscreen actors. The maker of this video is not the sort of person that well-intentioned people really want to be defending. But the highest officials in the U.S. government have no business condemning his constitutional expression of free speech. The fact that they did so quickly and with no hesitation should have a chilling effect on all who value freedom of speech.

The height of the mishandling came a week ago Sunday when UN Ambassador Susan Rice was sent to appear on no fewer than five Sunday interview shows, repeating the line that the video caused a mob to attack the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and led to the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others. That same day National Public Radio was reporting the Libyan president’s assertion that the consulate was deliberately targeted by terrorists. In other words, it was already known that the attack on the consulate had nothing to do with the video or the protests.

It is understandable that U.S. government officials would want to calm a volatile situation that could lead to more senseless deaths. But appearing to give validity to extremists’ anti-democratic views will only be counter-productive.

Perhaps what is most disheartening is how little pushback there has been from the media and civil libertarians on the government’s weak defense of freedom of speech. The Los Angeles Times even went so far as to editorialize that a ban of the video might be justified under the Constitution. More people are worried about the spectacular security failure in Benghazi on the anniversary of 9/11 and the fact that the administration seemed so out of touch with reality about what had actually happened.

Quickly buying into a patently false narrative in the aftermath of the attack did not look good for a president who had just told CBS News, “You know, Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later.”

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