We know a lot more now than we did yesterday when I wrote my first response to the horrific events in Cairo and Benghazi. We know, for example, that Cairo embassy’s twitter post was issued before the violence unfolded in front of and on the embassy grounds. To be sure, we have to suspect that the author of the post meant to defuse or preempt a situation like the one that did in fact occur.
His pandering clearly failed.
We also know that the Cairo statement wasn’t cleared by the State Department in Washington, D.C., and that the author seems to have been freelancing against the wishes of his Foggy Bottom superiors. But as the infamous (in some circles, at least) Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler notes, there are significant structural and thematic similarities between the Cairo post and other statements issued by our diplomats on similar occasions. Still, there’s enough of a difference to justify Kessler’s conclusion that the Cairo statement is “perhaps the weakest” (by far, I’d add) of the three statements he finds, especially because, unlike the others, it fails to offer a fulsome articulation of our commitment to freedom of speech, association, and religion. The audience at which the post was directed certainly feels a grievance and might welcome our respect for that grievance (and take it as an affirmation of the grievance), but, from my point of view, what it especially has to hear, much more clearly, is why we cannot and they ought not, to draw the conclusions from that grievance that the post’s author knows they’re sorely tempted to draw. We may condemn the offensive speech, but we will not suppress it. In the name of freedom of speech and religion, we will tolerate utterances that some may find offensive.
In this connection, Bush Administration State Department spokesman Sean McCormack (quoted by Kessler) makes a statement (responding to the Danish Mohammed cartoons) that comes closer to getting matters right (by my lights):
Our response is to say that while we certainly don’t agree with, support, or in some cases, we condemn the views that are aired in public that are published in media organizations around the world, we, at the same time, defend the right of those individuals to express their views. For us, freedom of expression is at the core of our democracy and it is something that we have shed blood and treasure around the world to defend and we will continue to do so. That said, there are other aspects to democracy, our democracy — democracies around the world — and that is to promote understanding, to promote respect for minority rights, to try to appreciate the differences that may exist among us.
We believe, for example in our country, that people from different religious backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, national backgrounds add to our strength as a country. And it is important to recognize and appreciate those differences. And it is also important to protect the rights of individuals and the media to express a point of view concerning various subjects. So while we share the offense that Muslims have taken at these images, we at the same time vigorously defend the right of individuals to express points of view. We may not agree with those points of view, we may condemn those points of view but we respect and emphasize the importance that those individuals have the right to express those points of view.
I would add that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton got it right today too:
Let me state very clearly – and I hope it is obvious – that the United States Government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message. America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. And as you know, we are home to people of all religions, many of whom came to this country seeking the right to exercise their own religion, including, of course, millions of Muslims. And we have the greatest respect for people of faith.
To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible. It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage. But as I said yesterday, there is no justification, none at all, for responding to this video with violence. We condemn the violence that has resulted in the strongest terms, and we greatly appreciate that many Muslims in the United States and around the world have spoken out on this issue….
Now, I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day. Now, I would note that in today’s world with today’s technologies, that is impossible. But even if it were possible, our country does have a long tradition of free expression which is enshrined in our Constitution and our law, and we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be.
There are, of course, different views around the world about the outer limits of free speech and free expression, but there should be no debate about the simple proposition that violence in response to speech is not acceptable. We all – whether we are leaders in government, leaders in civil society or religious leaders – must draw the line at violence. And any responsible leader should be standing up now and drawing that line.
Good for her. It is important, I think, that she said this in the presence of the Moroccan Foreign Minister. She certainly clarifies the difference between our principles and those of people–perfectly capable of alluding to “red lines”–who willfully refuse to have a thick skin.
“We want to expel the American ambassador,” said Abdelwadood al-Mutawa, a protester who was walking out of the [U.S.]embassy compound [in Yemen]. He said he was motivated by reports of the movie mocking the prophet Muhammad. “We cannot accept any insult to our prophet,” Mutawa said. “It’s a red line.”
Another protester said that some of the security forces protecting the building appeared sympathetic to the demonstrators’ cause. “Some soldiers were telling me, ‘These are dogs, and we cannot accept insulting our prophet,’ ” said Yusef Mohammad.
President Obama began his outreach to the Muslim world with a speech in Cairo, widely hailed as a new opening and change in tone from that of the Bush Administration. While I won’t take the acts of anti-American mobs in Egypt and Yemen, and of murderers in Libya, as an indication of the failure of his now not so new approach, there is some data that, along with these incidents, gives me pause. To say the least, President Obama hasn’t worn well in the Arab world. If that’s because he has vigorously targeted terrorists, I can live with it, and so too should he. If his concessions to the sensibilities of others have been taken as a sign of weakness, a sign that embassies and consulates can be attacked, and diplomats murdered, without facing serious consequences, then he has an extraordinary opportunity to set our adversaries straight.
Do the right thing, Mr. Obama.