When trouble began in north Africa this week, it found Mitt Romney, and to a lesser extent Barack Obama, behaving like cowards. Mitt Romney, sensing the possibility of political gain, distorted the meaning of a statement issued by the American embassy in Cairo and then treated it as though it was issued from the desk of Barack Obama himself. Barack Obama, perhaps fearing that Romney’s distortion would gain some traction in the media, promptly renounced the statement. (The statement had, it seems, been published after the State Department rejected it.) This politicking took place on the evening of September 11, while the embassy was under siege. Within it, an unfortunate apparatchik was suddenly forced to worry, not only that he might be murdered by religious fundamentalists, but that both the president and would-be president were mad at him.
What the statement said:
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, said Romney, amounted to an “apology” for the “American value” of “free speech.” Read the statement again — twice, if you must — and see if it does.
What the statement condemned — not apologized for, but condemned – was the trailer for a film entitled Innocence of Muslims, which appears to be an amateurish movie, produced in California, about the life and times of the “prophet” Mohammed. In it, Mohammed is portrayed as a hateful, delusional madman and child-rapist. The trailer’s been kicking around the web for months, but blew up in the Egyptian media only in the last two weeks, after somebody dubbed it into Arabic. In countries with no tradition of free speech, a great subset of the population finds it inconceivable that a film such as Innocence of Muslims could be produced in America without government approval. This is why the protestors chose to vent their spleens at a diplomatic mission rather than at the nearest McDonald’s.
As politics flew, as politics do, an American diplomatic mission in Beghazi, Libya, was attacked by a group of heavily armed militants. Four diplomats died. Initial reports suggested the killers were enraged by Innocence of Muslims; subsequent reports suggested the raid on the mission was pre-planned and just happened to coincide with the furor in Egypt. Yesterday, Innocence-inspired violence broke out at the American embassy in Yemen, and protestors gathered in Tehran outside of the Swiss consulate, which is where American ambassadors conduct their business in Iran. (The United States has no permanent diplomatic mission there.)
Events, in other words, have outpaced commentary, and the barrage of condemnations issued by the Romney campaign on Tuesday and Wednesday have gone largely undigested. Romney was briefly criticized on both left and right for mangling the chronology of events — he presented the Cairo embassy’s initial statement as having been released after the protestors’ attack, rather than presenting it as the preventative measure it was — but there are at least three points to be made about Romney’s politicking that haven’t been made yet, and should be, over and over.
First: If criticizing someone else’s speech (as the embassy did) is an attack on free speech (as Romney claims), then making this point is itself an attack on free speech, and Romney should be criticizing himself. That is, truly, the meaning of Romney’s absurd critique, taken to its natural conclusion. It could be that Romney means only that embassies and other emanations of government should refrain from commenting on others’ speech, but that’s almost as absurd. Mediating the feelings of one country’s people for another country’s people is what diplomacy’s all about, and one will, in the course of that mediation, occasionally be tasked with talking about what some third party has done or said.
Second: It is an ugly, beside-the-point canard to say that those responsible for the Innocence of Muslims are in no way responsible for the violence overseas, as Romney and so many pundits pretend. The producers are free from all responsibility only if they were unaware that some Muslims in some countries may be inspired to murderous rage by “blasphemous” depictions of their “prophet.” But the filmmakers were not unaware. That some Muslims believe homicide is occasionally an act of piety is at the root of the filmmakers’ critique of Islam. They knew what would happen and contributed to its happening anyway.
To put it another way — imagine there is some subset of the world’s population, comprising (say) 50 million individuals, who suffer from a mental illness which causes them to embark, en masse, on a murderous rampage whenever they hear a particular song. Imagine that some mischievous musician far, far from the countries where those 50 million live decides to make a recording of that song, and then devises a scheme to get it played on international radio. Imagine the song being heard by several thousand of the mentally-ill individuals, who then, as expected, go on a killing spree. Does the mischievous musician deserve any blame? Do those menaced by the mentally-ill individuals warrant condemnation for protesting, as the crazed mobs advance on their redoubts, that they had nothing to do with the song’s recording?
Third: About those protests. Implicit in the Romney critique of the Cairo embassy’s statement is that the embassy, and the Obama administration by extension, is craven — unwilling to stand up for free speech when free speech is imperiled. Romney, of course, makes this critique from the campaign trail in the United States, surrounded by Secret Service; not from an embassy surrounded by an angry mob. Talk about craven. If Romney feels so strongly, he should take a few days off the campaign trail and make his point directly to the Egyptian, Libyan, and Yemeni masses. The publicity would surely benefit his poll numbers.
But Romney isn’t this sad drama’s biggest coward. The biggest coward is the maker of Innocence of Islam. He has operated under a pseudonym, and misrepresented his age, ethnicity, and religion. Even as the actors he used for his film have stepped forward to rebuke him, the man himself has elected to remain underground in America, unwilling to confront the Islamist wrath he’s unleashed. He does, of course, have the legal right to unleash that wrath — the right to free speech, as the embassy pointed out, is “universal” — but it takes a special kind of imbecile to proudly exercise that right, while taking special care to ensure that the consequences will be suffered only by others.