Yesterday, four American diplomats were murdered in Benghazi, Libya, and the consulate destroyed. The U.S. embassy in Cairo was attacked and breached by a mob, and its flag set on fire. Although the murders seem to have been pre-planned to a significant degree, both outbursts of violence are said to have been sparked by the circulation of a clip on the internet of some amateur film made by Americans which casts Mohammed and Islam in a negative light. The violent Islamic mobs were trying to correct any mistaken, negative ideas about Islam.
The messages from the U.S. government have to one degree or another “deplored” or “condemned” the denigration of anyone’s religion (i.e. the YouTube clip) while saying there’s no justification for violence over it. In the middle of a political campaign, the opposition has made hay by painting the current administration as weak. And maybe the Obama administration is weak. However, it should be recalled that similar responses took place during the previous administration to outbursts in the Muslim world like this, and there is reason to wonder whether President Romney’s words in the future would be as tough as Candidate Romney’s words now. An excuse always offered for tiptoeing around the sensibilities of rampaging mobs in the Muslim world is that it would “put our troops in danger” to offend the enraged fanatics any further.
I don’t know how well this has worked to date. In any case, U.S. troops are no longer in Iraq. In Afghanistan, even as things stand, the greatest threat to American personnel appears to be uniformed members of the official Afghan army, who have been outfitted and trained by us.
There seems to be a problem with the “messaging” from the American side. When the U.S. president and secretary-of-state take pains to say in a situation like this that Islam should not be denigrated, they are leaving the impression that they might actually do something to stop it, or that they would like to. The First Amendment, we should hope, would constrain them. However, they are reinforcing the idea, already highly-prevalent in the Muslim world, that one day no one will be permitted to speak ill of Mohammed or Islam. There are even persistent efforts at the U.N. to pass what amount to “anti-blasphemy” resolutions.
Maybe the message from the U.S. needs to be simplified in cases like this (of which there are bound to be more, as anyone with a cell-phone camera can shoot a “blasphemous” video and upload it to YouTube). Maybe the message needs to be something more like this:
“We have freedom of speech in America, which absolutely includes the right to criticize religious beliefs. That is not ever going to change. Those who criticize others’ beliefs may be criticized in return, but they may not be physically assaulted because of their opinions. Anyone attacking American citizens, anywhere in the world, will be dealt with extremely harshly.”
Keep it simple, back it up with action, and repeat as necessary. It is the only honest response. The rest of this stuff makes Americans look like simpering fools who do not have the courage of their convictions. That’s not who Americans ought to be, and it only encourages further challenges. I also happen to think that U.S. soldiers on duty around the world would be glad to have a simpler message to stand behind.