It was wrong to produce and to distribute a trailer for a movie that depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a child abuser, a womanizer and a fraud. But before you jump all over me—man, have you never heard of free speech?—please note that there is a difference between having a right to say something and the notion that saying it is right.
Legally, our constitution allows for such drivel, allowing Americans to make films that they know are deeply offensive and distribute them to others. We tend to look the other way even when such material is intended not merely to provoke others, but is also motivated by deep-seated hate or bigotry, a form of speech banned by the laws in several major countries including Canada, Germany and the mother of modern democracies, Britain.
We live, however, not by law alone. We have moral codes. For example, we are outraged when members of Westboro Baptist Church hold demonstrations at military funerals—because the members of this group claim that we brought 9/11 on ourselves by tolerating gay people. And we correctly fire any TV anchor or radio announcer who makes far less offensive comments than those contained in the trailer that set out to insult Muslims.
True, people have a right to make such vile stuff, but we also have a right to express our strong disapproval. Such criticism is our way of trying to get foulmouthed people to curb their tongue—without violating their legal rights.
It is hence sad to see that a presidential candidate considers the statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo denouncing such hateful messages, issued before the murderous riots in Benghazi and the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya, as a proper target for a political attack. As the storm over the trailer grew, the embassy condemned “efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” They are misguided to say the least and this must be said even now, after the attacks.
At the same time, the parts of the Muslim world that have used one man’s publicity stunt and hate as an excuse for violence need to hear a clear statement that there is a world of difference between words and deeds—a point that should not be lost among the uproarious response to the trailer. All civilized people must recognize that while it is wrong to deliberately seek to enrage and insult someone, there is not a trailer, movie or book that offends humanity nearly as much as the killing of innocent civilians, particularly children. The fact that many in the Muslim world have much less to say about the killing of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi—or about the continued slaughter in Syria, the almost daily ethnic violence in Iraq, the frequent bombings at market places, weddings, funerals and prayers in Pakistan—than about a trailer, shows that we have to raise our voices and speak more clearly on this point.
If the vile trailer had been ignored, like so much other trash in cyberspace, it would have done little harm. The provocateur would have been foiled, failing to gain the reaction he was seeking. Or if those exposed to the video would have limited themselves to condemning it, we would have lived to see another day. However, those innocent people who are killed and maimed by mobs—not just in Benghazi but in too many parts of the Muslim world—are lost forever. Their meaningless deaths are an insult to all humanity. Together with the United States, Muslims should speak up more strongly against such violence. To paraphrase: sticks and stones will break bones, but don’t let words hurt you.
Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book, Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World, is forthcoming from Transaction this October.