Dozens of Egyptian protestors climbed the walls of the U.S. embassy in Cairo Tuesday, stormed the compound and tore down the American flag, replacing it with a black Islamist flag bearing the inscription "There is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet." Overnight, violent protests at the American consulate in Benghazi killed at least three Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. All of this was in reaction to a straight-to-YouTube movie created by Sam Bacile, an Israeli filmmaker based in California, and heavily promoted by Terry Jones, a Florida pastor notorious for anti-Muslim stunts.
Before either of these incidents, the State Department issued a statement headlined “U.S. Embassy Condemns Religious Incitement” and declaring that,
The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
While the instincts to emphasize America’s tradition of religious inclusiveness and to try to head off violent reactions are laudatory, the statement is offensive on its own terms and simply outrageous in light of the assaults on American sovereign soil and the death of American diplomats that followed.
In point of fact, making a movie commenting on the sexual proclivities of someone who died some fourteen hundred years ago in no way constitutes “incitement” under any meaningful use of the term.
More importantly, the United States government has no business whatsoever condemning the exercise of free speech, the most fundamental of civil liberties, by a member of the citizenry that employs and finances it. While the First Amendment right to free speech is subject to certain time, place and manner restrictions, the fact that it might “hurt the religious feelings of Muslims” is decidedly not among them.
Two year ago, in response to a question about announced plans by the same propagandist, Pastor Terry Jones, to burn copies of the Koran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, President Obama declared, “If he's listening, I just hope he understands that what he's proposing to do is completely contrary to our values. . . . This country has been built on the notions of religious freedom and religious tolerance," adding, "As a very practical matter, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States, I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan."
That message struck exactly the right tone: calling for tolerance and respect and considering the consequences that might reasonably be expected to follow in light of a history of violence by Islamists at provocations ranging from burned Korans to political cartoons.
Indeed, when Jones finally followed through on his threatened stunt, on March 20, 2011, despite pleas from everyone from Afghan president Hamid Karzai to U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates to refrain, days of mayhem erupted at the UN Assistance Mission compound in Mazar-i-Sharif, killing seven innocents.
In response to that tragedy, blogger Steve Hynd noted that Jones could have been arrested for his actions in the UK—and Canada and much of Continental Europe, for that matter. And those are hardly totalitarian societies. In America, though, people have a legal right to express any idea they please, no matter how despicable or hurtful it may be to others. Absent very narrow sorts of incitement, the police here have a duty to protect the likes of Jones from the anger of the mob, not shut them down lest the mob erupt.
To be sure, Terry Jones’s bigotry is the hardest type of speech to defend. It has no obvious redeeming value and is specifically intended to be offensive. But we’re a country that recognizes the right of citizens to burn our flag in protest, understanding that the very fact that doing so outrages so many Americans demonstrates how powerful a form of speech it is.
The fact that the words of some backwoods Florida preacher with a tiny congregation can spark murder and mayhem in Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya is a powerful indictment of the immaturity of those civil societies. Islam has endured for more than a millennium, and its followers constitute more than a fifth of humanity; surely, it can withstand the insults of a half-wit.
Jones seems to delight in the fact that Islamists halfway around the world erupt in violent outrage at his provocations. That’s despicable. But we’re not responsible for the evil, illegal actions others might take in response to our freely expressing our thoughts. Even if they’re ill informed, half-baked, bigoted thoughts. If we allow the possible reaction of the most dogmatic, evil people who might hear the message to govern our expression, we don’t have freedom at all. It’s worse than a heckler’s veto; it’s a murderer’s veto.
That’s a far greater danger than hurting people’s feelings.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.