INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — When I wrote last week’s column about the effects (or non-effects) of the adverse court decision on Aaron Katz, I stressed that America’s foundational core value of freedom of speech made any attempt to stifle these folks, however objectionable their utterances, untenable. Little did I imagine how much the week since that column would test my and all of our commitment to that value.
In case you’ve spent the last week in a cave, there was a 12-minute video on YouTube, ostensibly a trailer for a 2-hour film called “The Innocence of Muslims.” (Whether a film exists beyond this “trailer” is one of many questions.) The clip is amateurish, badly filmed, badly acted, and above all, an unmitigated piece of anti-Islamic propaganda on a par with “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” for credibility. Before the clip was taken down, it was dubbed in Arabic and viewed in the Muslim world, provoking protests, riots and deaths, including the killing of the US Ambassador to Libya and three others in Benghazi.
The film is the work of one Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an LA service station owner with a checkered criminal history. Nakoula, who used the pseudonym “Sam Bacile” on the film, is apparently an Egyptian Coptic Christian. Others were involved, including Terry Jones, a Florida preacher who helped promote the video. Jones first drew international attention when, in July 2010, he announced on social media websites his intention to mark the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States by holding an "International Burn a Quran Day.” He eventually did burn a copy or the Quran, sparking his own set of riots in the Arab world.
Once again we have a case of protected free speech causing enormous negative repercussions. Ambassador Chris Stevens was considered by Libyans to be a real friend and advocate for them and a very positive representative of the US. The others killed were another State Department officer and two ex-Navy Seals. It is impossible to find anything but waste and destruction in the deaths and damage done by the riots, and equally impossible in my view to lay the responsibility anywhere but with the film’s makers, distributors, and publicists. I cannot conceive of any motivation these people might have other than to foment violence by Muslims so that they could then say “see, I told you!”
And yet, as Americans, we must protect their rights to speech, however abominable that speech may be. The rest of the world, particularly the Arab world, has trouble understanding this. Simultaneously with (and unrelated to) the riots over the film, an Indian cartoonist was charged with sedition for publishing cartoons pointing out government corruption. As in India, the world’s largest democracy, so in most of the world - there are limits on speech and governments do not hesitate to enforce these limits. No wonder, then, the “Arab Street” looks to the US government to punish the makers of this nasty piece of work, and our not doing so adds fuel to the notion that the government and people of the US agree with these vermin.
If you take a principled stand, the world will test your resolve, and this is quite a test. The problem with freedom is that it requires responsibility. As Justice Holmes said, “your right to swing your arm ends at my nose.” Similarly, your right to say what you want ends at incitement to riot, but barring a direct call to arms, that requires proving intent, which is hard to do, so we have to err on the side of protecting speech under the First Amendment rather than restricting it.
When actor Patrick Duffy’s parents were murdered, he said that as a practicing Buddhist, he could not demand the murderer be punished as the act was self-punishing — the murderer would suffer for thousands of lives for what he did. I’d like to believe the same for Mssrs. Nakoula, Jones, and their ilk. Living under the US Constitution is a gift and a privilege, and abuses such as this give ammunition to those who would take those rights away so that their voice is all that can be heard. We allow that, we pay with our souls.
— Ed Gurowitz has a doctorate in psychology and is a management consultant. He has lived in Incline Village since 1995 and is active in the Democratic Party. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.