The attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts in Cairo and Benghazi, including the murder of the ambassador to Libya and three other personnel, have occasioned a torrent of facile commentary in this country. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus says President Obama “sympathizes with the attackers in Egypt,” while Twitter is ablaze with brave moral pronouncements about the the sanctity of free speech and how the U.S. should never under any circumstances criticize violence-inciting propaganda originating from within our borders.
The story goes that a “a 52-year old Israeli-American real estate developer in California” posted on YouTube a 14-minute clip from a low-budget film he’s produced called “The Innocence of the Muslims,” which depicts Muslims and Mohammad in the nastiest light imaginable. Inflamed Salafists took to the streets in Cairo and Benghazi, and the U.S. Embassy in Cairo’s response was to post a statement on Twitter: “We condemn the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” Since then the embassy has deleted some of its tweets, as the State Department and Obama administration have scrambled to straighten out their line on the mob violence. Here’s the president’s statement from this morning.
Two things ought to be kept in mind as the furor develops. First, while an inflammatory YouTube video may have detonated the charge, the powderkeg in Libya and Egypt has other origins. If mobs can express their will by overthrowing dictators, why shouldn’t they express their will by slaughtering diplomats as well? Westerners across the political spectrum have been willfully naive not only about who some of the Arab Spring revolutionaries are — by no means a majority, but quite enough, are extremists of the sort the U.S. has elsewhere been fighting in the vaunted War on Terror — but about the nature of revolution in general, which does not come to a neat conclusion with the death of a monster like Gaddafi. After seeing what happened in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was deposed, everyone should know better. There’s nothing simple about the “transition to democracy.” Russia has not become a liberal democracy 20 years after the fall of Communism, a peaceful revolution which in the Balkans led directly to ethnic war. Even a necessary and just revolution is unlikely to deliver a speedy and painless happy ending.
The second point is that there is no such thing as worldwide free speech. It’s not simply that few countries other than the U.S. have constitutional speech protections as broad as those of our First Amendment. What’s more important is that few people in the developing world separate tolerated expressions of hatred from official endorsement of such views. Indeed, while Americans think of free speech as something that protects everyone from censorious government, elsewhere peoples not infrequently demand that their governments limit speech. American diplomats must communicate with peoples and governments which not only recognize nothing like our First Amendment rights, but which see such rights as extreme and destabilizing — and with good reason. We in the U.S. may think that attitude barbaric and beyond the pale of civilized discourse, but diplomats addressing the public or officials of a foreign country have no choice but to deal with that reality, like it or not.