There’s something invigorating about being able to say what’s on your mind, let the chips fall where they may.
There’s something even more invigorating in knowing that your government has your back on your right to sound off, the protection spelled out in black and white, whether you speak wisely or not, falsely or not.
So when infuriated Muslims take to the streets in Egypt, Pakistan or Yemen to vow death and destruction until the U.S. government stops those who insult Islam, we probably shake our heads and mutter: The poor souls just don’t understand, simply don’t get it that here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, the government has no right to tell a free citizen what to say, how to say it, when to say it or where. All of that is left to our own judgment as heirs to a powerful and enviable right.
But good judgment, or discretion, is not a requirement for free speech. And thus it is that our government must mop up the mess as best it can when people speak freely — as they will, and the chips fly.
Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Californian, and his associates are alleged to have made a film depicting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in an offensive manner. The video wound up on the Internet. Nothing has been unpredictable about the result: As they have many times before at similar provocation, offended Muslims have taken to the streets in large numbers from Afghanistan to Yemen. They have unleashed their fury at U.S. embassies and consulates and targeted American personnel and overstretched troops for retribution.
Was the video a very convenient excuse for premeditated assaults on American targets? Perhaps. Are powerful factions manipulating a restive population to advantage? In the cauldron that is the Middle East, that would be a safe assumption, too.
But in the end, for those who value the freedom of expression, it shouldn’t really matter whether the video was simply a pretext or not for the rioting during the past week. The effect has been as predictable as a torch in dry grass.
We learn over and over again (at least in relation to religion and the dynamics of Middle East politics) that the right to free expression, aided by the technology at our fingertips, makes anybody a random variable in the foreign-policy equation. From the comfort of his California home or studio, a Nakoula can set off a firestorm that consumes many innocents. (Incidentally, that is what makes so absurd the recent claim by a partisan that “there’s a pretty compelling story that if you had a President Romney, you’d be in a different situation. …” Presidents have many uncommon gifts, to be sure, but I doubt the gift of foretelling or pre-empting a Nakoula or a Quran-burning pastor is one of them).
Freedom of speech would not present such a problem if people who exercised their right to express their views also caught all the blowback when it came. But it rarely happens that way, which is the reason there is a premium on judgment and discretion to temper the right to do or say whatever we want.
Others have paid with their lives, collateral damage for Nakoula’s right to needle and insult the adherents of another religion. In diplomatic posts across the Muslim world, we are paying additional costs as a government to beef up security and protect staff and families. We face new tensions in politically volatile countries that will require more time and energy to defuse.
You might say handling the fallout is all part of the business of government. Right? No one said the right to say and do what we please comes cheap. But I have a hard time with it when one person’s conscious decision puts at risk another’s life or well-being. I have a hard time with it when people ignore evacuation orders until fire or flood waters lap at their feet and expect a rescue squad to respond on cue. I have a hard time with it when people disregard barriers and expect to be hauled out of mountain crevices at great risk to rescuers. I have a hard time with it when people pour fuel on fire and act surprised when things blow up.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org