Tuesday, September 18, 2012

“Be Careful For What You Wish”

Thought of the Day
Sydney M. Williams
“Be Careful For What You Wish”

September 18, 2012

There are those who claim that anti-Islamic depictions, like Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses published in 1988, or the unflattering cartoons that appeared in the Danish newspaper “Jyllands-Posten” in 2005 are “hate speech,” and therefore should be banned. That suggests a dangerous precedent, for while they may be distasteful and crude, they are also examples of free speech. And so is the video that has created so much commotion. As such they must be defended by those who believe in freedom of expression. In my opinion Google has been right in denying the Obama Administration’s request that they take down the American-produced anti-Islamic video that has been cited by some as inciting violence. In fact, an unfortunate consequence of the Administration’s making so much of the video has been to increase its popularity. It is a fourteen-minute trailer to a full-length, American-produced film that according to Wikipedia was shown once to a theater audience of ten people and then uploaded to YouTube in July. It is, apparently, insulting to the Prophet Muhammad. But bad taste and insults, however, have never been an excuse to censure the right of free expression. If they were, politicians would be unable to advertise and campaign.

It is this threat to a basic freedom that should concern us, as Americans, more than whom or what was responsible for the attacks on our embassies and consulates in the Middle East. A country that grants its citizens the right of free speech must necessarily be morally strong. Obviously, the right of free speech does not protect the idiot who cries “Fire!” in a crowded theater. But the state, as the defender of free speech must be able to withstand the objections of those who are offended by what has been spoken, written or produced. It must agree that some of what is said or written is tasteless and offensive. It must have the moral certitude to defend the rights of those with whom they disagree. Such rights are elemental to the existence of a free society. And, just as we have the right to speak and write freely, so do we have the right not to listen, view or read.

In my opinion, the reason the Administration decided that the warped and tasteless video would become the motivating factor for the attacks on the Embassy in Cairo and the killing of the American Ambassador at the Consulate in Benghazi had less to do with Muslim sensitivities and more to do with diverting attention from what may have been a failure to take proper precautions leading up to the eleventh anniversary of the attacks on 9/11. It was certainly easier than accepting responsibility. And, in campaign season, one can never let an opportunity be wasted.

Once the decision was made, it was endorsed wholeheartedly. Last Thursday, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, at a press conference in Washington tried to quell Muslim anger: “Let me state very clearly, and I hope it is obvious, the United States government had nothing to do with this video.” It is unlikely that anyone believed that such a poorly made video would be the product of the U.S. government. But that she did not feel an obligation to also defend the right of a citizen to do so is troubling. On Friday, as our embassies were still being mobbed by radicals, as had begun on the anniversary of 9/11, White House spokesman Jay Carney held a press briefing: “The unrest we’ve seen around the region has been in reaction to a video that many Muslim’s find offensive. It is not a response to 9/11.” He did, though, later add, “As I said yesterday, it can be difficult to see in some countries why the U.S. can’t simply eliminate this expression…but as you know…it’s one of our fundamental principles.” Others, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey apparently disagree, as he continued efforts to have Google muzzle the offensive video.

On Sunday, the Administration dispatched U.S. UN Ambassador Susan Rice to the talk shows to pass on the same message: “Based on the best information we have to date…it [the attack] began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo, where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by this hateful video.” Keep in mind, this was the eleventh anniversary and the video was downloaded to YouTube two months earlier. In contrast to Ms. Rice’s comments, Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf, president of Libya’s General National Congress, said on the same CBS “Face the Nation” show: “The way these perpetrators acted and moved, and their choosing the specific date for this so-called demonstration, this leaves us with no doubt that this was preplanned, predetermined.”

The fact that the attack came on 9/11, and that the perpetrators carried rocket propelled grenades and mortars suggests this was not a spontaneous uprising by disenchanted protestors having seen a video they did not like. This had been planned and was well funded. The photograph taken five days ago of Ambassador Chris Stevens being dragged through a street of Benghazi, allegedly being taken to the hospital, is equally disturbing.

The passing of the blame onto a video that had been made two months earlier is nothing more than a red herring. It is designed to divert attention from the fact that Mr. Obama, like his predecessors, has been unable to solve the riddle that is the Middle East. But, worse, it suggests a bending of the principles of our Constitution. When we disrespect our own laws, how can we expect to earn respect from other nations?

Every President that I can remember believed he would be able to solve the Rubik’s Cube that is the Middle East. None have succeeded. Perhaps there is no solution. The people of the Middle East – Arabs, Jews, Coptic Christians, Persians, Kurds, Turks and others – have lived there for thousands of years. Yet the boundaries that delineate their countries were drawn by the British in the aftermath of the First World War, less than 100 years ago. Oil, which was discovered in the Arabian Peninsula in the 1920s, made the region of commercial interest to all western powers, but especially to the United States. Upon the termination of the British Mandate for Palestine, the State of Israel rose in 1948. The day after they were recognized by President Harry Truman as an independent country they were invaded by Arab neighbors in support of displaced Palestinians. The region has not known peace in the ensuing sixty-four years.

At 95, Bernard Lewis is generally considered the greatest authority in the U.S. on Islamism. He is noted for having always held a balanced, but ultimately optimistic view toward Muslim society and culture. However, his warning in a 1990 essay in the “Atlantic” is how he is best known today: “But Islam, like other religions, has also known periods when it inspired in some followers a mood of hatred and violence. It is our misfortune that part, though by no means all or even most, of the Muslim world is now going through such a period, and that much, though again not all, of that hatred is directed against us.” More recently, according to an article that appeared recently in the “Tablet,” an on-line magazine of Jewish news, ideas and culture, Professor Lewis’s life-long affection and respect may being tempered, as a darker picture than he envisioned is emerging from Morocco to Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama is only the latest in a long series of Presidents with the goal of solving this riddle. But he is a man who brings more hubris to the party than most, a man who spent part of his childhood among Muslims and who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, not for what he had done, but for the peace he was expected to bring. Such testimonials, however, may have provided him with more arrogance than understanding. It remains to be seen what he can do. But running from America’s basic rights of freedom, and passing blame, is not the right way to start.

The twin mandates of the United States have been to support the democratic State of Israel and to ensure the regular flow of oil, principally from Saudi Arabia. Those goals, obviously, are often in conflict. It has meant that we, a democratic nation, have had to support dictatorial regimes. When revolutions have arisen, as they did in Egypt in 1952 when King Farouk was overthrown, or in 1979 when the Shah of Iran was deposed, it has taken skillful negotiations to maintain some semblance of order. Dictatorial regimes have generally been replaced by other dictatorial regimes. That has continued to be true, including last year’s Arab Spring.

Despite our obvious failings to bring peace to the Middle East, we must keep in mind that in all of history there has never been another country that has been a force for so much good as the United States, nor one that has done so much to welcome and assimilate others, including Muslims, into our culture, which has expanded as it has accepted them. There is no need to apologize about who we are and the principles we represent. As we have discovered, we cannot dictate events in the Middle East, but we can and should remain true to the principles of our own nation – defending the rights of our citizens, showing the world that we cannot be cowed into stooping to their level. At all times, though, we must remain ever vigilant and be careful for what we wish.

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