Thursday, September 13, 2012

Security and Offense

It goes without saying that Innocence of Muslims is more than just an “anti-Islam film,” the rather neutral description used this morning by Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski in a report with the headline “US embassies step up security after Libya attack.” It is a cleverly conceived and executed project that, thus far at least, has been successful at keeping all of its production team anonymous (at least according to the current version of its Wikipedia page). While it was given a private screening last June in Los Angeles, primary distribution has been through YouTube. As a result, Muslims around the world have come to recognize it as an “American product;” and, to make matters worse, the film has been promoted by Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who established his own fifteen minutes of fame by making a public show out of burning copies of the Quran.

As a result, the film has an American imprimatur, regardless of whether or not any Americans were explicitly involved in its production or distribution. (Anyone can upload to YouTube from any country.) In this context the State Department should have been prepared for hostile reactions in countries that have a substantial number of Muslims in the population. Unfortunately, the essence of the reaction turned out to be the promotion of freedom of speech as an American value.

The obvious question is whether or not Innocence of Muslims constitutes an act of hate speech. If we are willing to draw the line between hate speech and other acts protected by freedom of speech, could we not at least have issued a statement in traditionally neutral State Department language saying that we would investigate whether either the film or its explicit promoters (such as Pastor Jones) could be prosecuted for hate speech under American law? Even if the investigation went no further than determining whether or not Jones was indictable, it would have sent a signal to the international Muslim community that we recognized the offense and would try to “make it right.”

Mind you, this not a matter of disowning freedom of speech. It is just an explicit recognition of hate speech as a separate category. At least our government has the good sense to avoid the extremist rhetoric of Mitt Romney (as reported by Holly Bailey):
"It's a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values," Romney told reporters. "It's never too early for the U.S. government to condemn attacks on Americans and defend our values.… When our grounds are being attacked, being breached, the first response of the United States must be outrage."
Unlike Romney, our own position at least recognized that there were values other than our own. Nevertheless, we were at least perceived as prioritizing freedom of speech without first deliberating over whether or not, under American law, this was really a “freedom of speech case.” This narrow sense of values ended up costing the lives of four Americans in Libya, one of whom was an ambassador with a comprehensive understanding of conditions there.

Meanwhile, as owner of YouTube, Google has now blocked access to Innocence of Muslims. It is not often that I have an opportunity to assert that Google is showing better sense than the United States Government. (Usually I argue to the contrary.) However, this case definitely serves as a significant exception.

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