As protests roiled Benghazi, an eastern Libyan city that had served as the power base of the uprising that deposed Libyan dictator Colonel Moammar al-Gaddafi last year, gunmen launched an acute assault on the United States consulate there Tuesday night. Successfully exploiting the protests as cover, they attacked the consulate with guns, hand-thrown bombs and rockets. The United States Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was killed, along with 2 American security contractors who were formerly Navy SEALs and 1 other member of the Foreign Service. The BBC reported that Ambassador Stevens apparently was only on the grounds of the consulate at the time because he was assisting with the evacuation. The Libyan doctor who tried to revive the Ambassador after the attack said he died of smoke inhalation.
The 4 Americans who were killed in the line of duty were brought back stateside yesterday, and buried in a ceremony led by President Obama.
The principle reason I’m writing this is to wade into a controversy that developed almost immediately. It is a political controversy, but because it involves a serious question of the priority with which government regards our rights I will try to deal with it in as minimally-political (but not apolitical) a fashion as possible.
The controversy started when Governor Romney predictably criticized President Obama’s response to the attacks. I want to be very clear about this: I will spend most of this entry on the title question, not on the “apology” for the American value of freedom of speech which Romney accused the President of giving (and which anyone paying attention to the actual course of events knows he did not give). Since I’ve cleared that up, Governor Romney’s charge was directed towards a tweet issued by a member of the Foreign Service at the US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, without knowledge or authorization of the President:
“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.”
This statement was tweeted by a Foreign Service member before the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi or the US Embassy in Cairo even occurred. Governor Romney seized on it because they fit with his campaign’s foreign policy narrative of “no apology” for American values and the empowered role of the United States in the World. He immediately caught a round of flak, including from some prominent Republicans, for seeking to politicize an unfolding crisis; the President responded with unusual harshness, saying Governor Romney has a “shoot first, aim later” approach to foreign policy problems. But I want to look past Governor Romney’s objection to this comment from its political context, with the attendant charge against the President. I even want to look past the focus of the statement itself, which “condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.” So: When you remove the question of the appropriateness of Governor Romney’s comments, of President Obama’s moral tone in responding to the crisis, and of the notorious tweet’s call for respect for religion, what’s left of the controversy? Well, none other than the most-fundamental political question of all is left.
Who is responsible when offensive provocation leads to retaliatory violence? The perpetrators of violence are responsible. The perpetrators of violence are always responsible, and they are entirely responsible.
This is not to say that the creation of an artwork (however badly-made and contrived in its meaning) that one can reasonably expect to engender a violent response isn’t a morally-fraught question. Moral considerations that don’t at least countenance the likely response of others to the act are really moral abdications. But the difference between the provocateur and he who rises to the bait with a violent response is the difference between a person who may (or in some cases, does not) have bad motives but performs a nonviolent act versus a person who chooses to initiate violent force because of their subjective feelings. The makers of the bad movie insulting Islam’s chief religious and historical figure may warrant our contempt for issuing an insult that was designed expressly to provoke a response…but that is the most sanction they deserve. Their act of provocation does not warrant physical retaliation against anyone whatsoever–in any way.
When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin horrified many with its account of man’s inhumanity to man under American slavery, he is said to have greeted her with immortal irony: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Hyperbole, of course, but is it plausible through some stylized narrative to hold Stowe accountable for the bloodiest war in American history? No, no, a thousand times no. Neither Stowe’s obvious innocence in the course of the war nor the rightness of the Abolitionist cause have anything to do with it; the simple fact is a match of this sort is happenstance compared with the tinder it lights.
And the tinder itself is much smaller than people think for how brightly it burns. CNN yesterday was in particularly-shameful form, playing a few minutes of violent Friday protests over and over and over again. The Cairo area has about 20 million people; a few thousand participated in Friday’s protests. Worldwide, most of the protests were not riotous. The narrow subset of people who perpetrated acts of violence deserves more attention; the attack on the US consulate in Libya appears to have been planned by a Libyan radical Islamist group, Ansar al-Sharia, which blocked Libyan security forces from moving in to protect the consulate while it was being overrun. While this comes up in an online CNN article explaining the riots, the news channel’s coverage yesterday nonetheless was full of headlines like “RAGE IN THE MUSLIM WORLD.”
But again, the small number (and telling geographic confinement) of Muslims actually involved in violent riots is not the issue in assigning blame between provocateur and rioter. The principle at stake here is as basic as they come. Our refusal to take punitive action against the makers of a message–however-offensive–isn’t simply about our fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression in this case. It is even more-basic than that. When we rebuff the demands of those who answer an insult with violence, we repudiate the uncivilized notion that the one whom is willing to use violence can dictate the actions of others. Anyone has the right to take offense; expressed indignation can be quite virtuous and even have beneficial effects on individuals or on a culture. Anyone has the right to put these provocateurs on the couch, so to speak, or to seek to ridicule or disqualify them in the public sphere. But as the use of violence expands the public sphere contracts; it is never in its essence anything more than it is between 2 individuals–namely, an attempt by one to subordinate the other mechanically to his will. Violence is simply about unadorned power. The most-basic principle justifying government is that it may monopolize violence to prevent its subjective use by individuals against one another. Thomas Hobbes goes so far as to say that there can be no talk of morality without what we call law and order; suffice to say that casting blame on a provocateur in a way that implies that violent men can blame others for their violent actions is nonsense.
While Neoconservatives and the emphatically religion-averse “New Atheists” have preached confrontation, in the face of this latest rash of violent riots much as they did with the 2006 “Cartoon Riots” following the publication of offensive drawings of Muhammad in a European newspaper, they have done so on freedom of speech grounds. Offensive images, including those that bring the sacred down to the level of the profane, can always be sufficiently defended on the grounds of freedom of speech. But I’ve noticed that those who congregate to defend these gestures on these grounds have an odd tendency in practice to share the sentiments expressed. There is a right even more-basic than our freedom of speech that violent rioters calling for punishment for those who made the offending video are violating. That right is the expectation that our government will protect us from violence.
On account of our First Amendment, Americans have the right to express themselves as they wish–provided that such expression will not create an immanent danger. On this grounds one does not have a “right” to yell “Fire!” in a theater because it could cause a stampede; however, one does have a right to offensive gestures; others have the opportunity to consider and decide how to respond. Those who have rioted, burned several American chain restaurant franchises in the Middle East, launched attacks on our and German embassies and even killed 4 staff members at our consulate in Benghazi, Libya were not automatons responding reflexively to a present stimulus; they were human beings who decided to riot, destroy property, threaten people and in some cases kill because of an idea. This idea, in case this characterization invites confusion, had nothing to do with changing their own lives or other people’s lives for the better; given that, one might have said the same about the Arab Spring of late 2010 to the present, which has brought striking political change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and may do the same in Syria once the Assad Regime finally succumbs to the rebellion it cannot contain. The only idea the present rioters are fighting for is their capacity to use violence to dictate terms to others. They say it is to defend the integrity of their religion, or the dignity of their religion’s founder; a Liberal Ironist maintains as always that these ideas and their need for defense are human in origin, as are both the standards by which the rioters judge them “defended” and the crude and hamfisted tactics they would use to achieve that aim. This is and only ever has been about them, about the violent radicals themselves, and about their efforts to use force to control other people’s behavior. To say that expressive provocateurs are responsible for the violence their work incites–even if they might have thought that their actions could provoke a reaction–is in its very nature to follow the script written by the violent extremists. (It hardly seems to make sense to speak of them “writing” something, but there it is.) The Liberal Ironist sees religion as a series of theoretically-inviolate symbols people use either to congregate and communicate difficult truths (at best) or simply to dominate each other (at worst); these symbols are always anthropomorphic, and never transcend human experience. 1 idea may prove more practically useful than another in one’s experience, but no idea is more “real” than any of the others, and no idea is going to “win the Contest.” Ideas compete, but they are not involved in zero-sum games. Animals–humans very-much included–play zero-sum games. This is a zero-sum game: To blame anyone other than the actual initiator of violent force for actions consciously taken, is to submit to domination by anyone immoral-enough to assert it. They may portray themselves as victims, but the ironist at his most-illiberal would say that this is an old trick of those who want power they cannot earn. The impersonal use–or even the credible threat–of deadly violence to counter an insult isn’t like the problem of terrorism, it is the problem of terrorism.
I want to close with an attempt to address Governor Romney’s attack on the President’s leadership through this episode. Aside from on the most-basic level (regarding government’s role in protecting the peace and our interest in conducting a sure-footed foreign policy), I want to do this without recourse to politics. Governor Romney responded to an unofficial tweet issued by someone in the US Embassy in Cairo; Andrew Sullivan marvelously noted that this tweet was tweeted before the film riots and the assault on the US consulate in Libya–but that Governor Romney’s response blamed the President for issuing an apology in the face of violent attacks that had not yet occurred, by way of a statement that he hadn’t seen or authorized. Romney admonished him thusly:
“I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
This crosses the line, as does Romney’s equally shrill later “clarifications”–and not principally because the Governor is blaming the President for something he didn’t do, or because he saw fit to wade into the issue without actually knowing what was happening. Governor Romney tried to make the President look weak while a security crisis unfolded that involved multiple United States diplomatic missions in the Middle East, as well as possible risks to American citizens and American property abroad.
I do not level this criticism lightly or opportunistically. In 2007, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Syria to confer with President-for-Life Bashar al-Assad, who had not yet come fully into his own as a brazenly mass-murdering tyrant (merely a quiet, garden-variety tyrant). Speaker Pelosi sought to show-up President George W. Bush for his strict policy of diplomatic silence towards the Assad Family Regime. This was wrong–and not because “we shouldn’t have been talking to Syria.” 5 1/2 years ago, I agreed that our government should have been trying to establish better relations with the Assad Regime. I cannot say for certain whether this would have benefited the pro-democracy movement in Syria in 2011 or would simply have made the United States look worse and the Assad Regime even more-confident; In any case, I was all for better communication with the Assad Regime at the time. But I was not in favor of legislative leaders holding out the promise of alternate US foreign policies. That is simply inappropriate behavior for an elected official of the same government. In a CNN interview last night, former Utah Governor, US Ambassador to China and Republican Presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman said “politics stops at the water’s edge;” that’s a sentiment I like very much–whoever happens to be President. In-house disagreements are fine, as are serious disagreements about foreign policy. But you do not undermine the President while he is conducting US foreign policy. This is not a game. This kind of opportunistic effort at backseat driving leaves us all worse-off; in any case, a Presidential candidate shouldn’t be making comments that could be taken for more than they are while a foreign security situation is unfolding, or in ways that could be construed as an attempt to force the President to change his policy tack.
I didn’t want to link these 2 judgments together, but tactical concerns and concerns of tact must be allowed to take precedence over statements of principle where foreign policy are concerned. Lives are at stake; if a government’s foremost responsibility of protecting the lives of its citizens dictates that we not comply with the demands of violent malefactors, it also requires that the President be permitted to formulate a response to an emerging situation when our foreign service personnel or other Americans abroad may be in danger. The initial provocateur’s political right to get us into this mess may still be a moral wrong, and in any case a doubling-down by a political candidate looking for an angle cannot help. Those who want a position of power in government have to think responsibly, even if the proper functioning of our political system sometimes defends citizens when they don’t.
The Liberal Ironist hopes that you think without fear, speak your mind–eloquently, I must ask–and ask yourself when considering political action, “Am I helping to make the World a more- or a less-threatening place?”