Religion & Philosophy

Deaths of Amb. Stevens and staff stretch meaning of free speech to the breaking point

Once again, Pastor Terry Jones takes advantage of free speech.

The death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three staff persons, apparently by a grenade launcher attack, came hot on the heels of an attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo. The Daily Beast reports:

At least 2,000 demonstrators, enraged over Innocence of Muslims, a little-known film produced in the United States that allegedly insults the Prophet Muhammad, shouted, “We will sacrifice ourselves for you, Allah’s messenger!” A group of men managed to mount the embassy’s walls.

… Al-Azhar [University in Cairo], one of the Arab world’s most elite centers for higher Islamic learning, reportedly condemned the film on Tuesday, citing a scene in which a character based on the Prophet Muhammad goes on trial. The Wall Street Journal reported that Innocence of Muslims’ writer, editor, and producer is a 52-year-old American, Sam Bacile. [Pastor Terry] Jones is promoting the film, whose new 14-minute Arabic-dubbed trailer on YouTube depicts the Prophet as a deranged womanizer calling for massacres.

You may remember Jones, the pastor of a Gainesville, Florida congregation called the Dove World Outreach Center, from his threat to burn the Koran in 2010. It resulted in the deaths of five protesters and seven UN employees in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan and nine in Kandahar.

Rev. Jones has also been active in spreading the myth to gullible Americans that the Islamic world seeks to impose shariah law in the United States. (Under the category of FWIW, Jones was a member of the same high-school graduating class in Missouri as Rush Limbaugh.) As for Al-Azhar University — founded in the tenth century! — one could argue that it should know better than to treat Jones as representative of Americans. In fact, though, many Americans share Jones’s belief and the Al-Azhar administration, no doubt aware of that, can hardly be blamed for defending Islam.

Meanwhile AlJazeera reports:

Abdel Moneim al-Yasser, a member of the interim committee monitoring security in Libya, told Al Jazeera: “A handful of renegades of people who are attacking the national interests of Libya are behind this issue. We are still investigating on their identity […] we will track them and bring them to justice.”

…  Two other staff were injured, El-Dressi reported. The deaths were confirmed by Wanis al-Sharif, the Libyan deputy interior minister, to the AFP news agency.

Addressing a press conference, Sharif blamed loyalists of former Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi for the attack, while stressing that the US should have removed its personnel from the country when news of the film’s release broke.

In other words, it’s possible that it wasn’t Islamist extremists, but Gaddafi supporters who may have taken advantage over outrage over the film to engender hostility in Washington towards the new Libyan government. In any event, were it not for Jones, it’s safe to say that Ambassador Stevens and his staff would still be alive.

Like the threats to burn the Quran, Jones once again pushes the boundaries of free speech just short — or past — inciting a riot. After the 2010 incidents, Brad Knickerbocker of the Christian Science Monitor  wrote:

The controversial Westboro Baptist Church [in Topeka, Kansas, is] best known for its anti-gay protests, often held at the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. While such activities held by the Westboro Baptist Church and the Dove World Outreach Center may be highly offensive to most Americans – and may, in fact, incite others to violence – they are generally protected as free speech.

[In March, 2010] the US Supreme Court upheld the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to hold its protests at military funerals.

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and – as it did here – inflict great pain,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion for a case brought by the father of a Marine killed in Iraq. “On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker.”

That provides scant solace to the families of Ambassador Stevens and his staff or the protesters who were killed in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, if U.S. law protects those who make wild allegations against Islam, it’s easy to understand why some Muslims assume it’s up to them to protect their religion.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

27 replies »

  1. Assuming he’s fully aware of the potential his words have for triggering violence and death, when do I take the leap and suggest that Pastor Terry is actually a secret Muslim agent provocateur whose job is to incite armed conflict? Oh, wait. I think I just did.

    As suppositions go, it’s at least no more wildly ignorant than the man’s words, and would go a long way to explaining the apparent disconnect between his alleged “Christianity” and nearly anything found in the New Testament concerning loving one’s neighbor, etc.

  2. Protecting your religion and killing innocent people are two very different things. How about condemning the murders? Did Buddhists kill Muslims when they destroyed those giant Buddha statues carved in the cliff?

  3. Muslims kill innocent people because they are once again offended, and you insinuate that free speech is to blame? How twisted you really must be!

    • Aref: If you’re going to indict the poster, please aim your comments at things he actually said instead of making things up. He doesn’t blame free speech, he blames Jones for abusing the right to free speech. Pretty different things there.

  4. So I believe in Voltaire’s “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I have a harder time with “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to SOMEONE ELSE’S death your right to say it.”

  5. Oh, and when Jones, Bacile, et. al. are attacked physically, I’m going to have a hard time feeling pity and sympathy for them.

  6. I should poke at one sentence here, Russ: “…the Al-Azhar administration, no doubt aware of that, can hardly be blamed for defending Islam.”

    Unacceptable behavior by religious radicals (and I include our own Christian nutbags in this) is never defensible and I fear your wording here mitigates the crime. However, what is CERTAINLY accurate and fair to say would be that we should always expect religious radicals to behave in this way.

    Otherwise, spot-on, and the implications are terrifying.

  7. @Aref–please let us know what we should be upset about. I think the point Russ was trying to make is that, in a society where we really value free speech, some people hide behind that value when they say things that inspire violence in others. Too often, people who know the potential effect that their words will have then come back after someone acts on their words with, “Don’t blame me. I didn’t encourage that behavior. I was just exercising my freedom of speech.”

    As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in “Schenk vs. US,” “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” The producers of the film did just that.

  8. All righty, legal beagles, I’m in over my head on this one and would love a more informed opinion than I can form on my own.

    To what extent does the concept of “reasonable man” ( overlap with the test from Brandenburg v. Ohio (

    “The Court held that government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless that speech is directed to inciting, and is likely to incite, imminent lawless action.”

    What I’d love to see is an application of such an overlap such that Pastor Terry is tried for treason, since I think a reasonable man would foresee the deaths of Americans. quite likely, as it turns out, ones stationed at an embassy, to wit, an assault on American territory.

    Do I think the radicals were wrong? Sure I do. Then again, I also see from a relativistic perspective that they were quite possibly (leaving room for Gaddafi loyalist subterfuge) acting as compelled by faith as they hold it.

    Solutions on the faith front may never be forthcoming. In the meantime, there’s holding Pastor Terry and his ilk accountable.

    • I’m no lawyer, but this seems like reaching. What we need to be investigating is whether we can treat the good reverend to a free trip to Libya for a face-to-face sit-down with the radicals.

    • Jones and others like him spend too much time focusing on their rights and too little time focusing on their concomitant responsibilities.

      Jones’ responsibilities supposedly include modeling acceptable behavior for his congregants. Last I checked, though, pride was frowned upon. Jesus was famously humble. Jones – not so much, either personally or on behalf of his professed faith or the rights of the United States.

  9. May be a stretch. It’s my specialty. Though I would rather Terry had a face-to-face with Jesus. I’d hope Jesus would start with, “did I stutter?”

  10. So is “extraordinary rendition” justified in this case? I think we’ve individually and collectively been opposed to such behavior in the past.

    Not that it’s not tempting to be inconsistent in this instance.

  11. I think we all stand guilty of situational ethics at times. We’re human and imperfect. People who think that they are human but perfect are the ones who get us into these messes and refuse to recognize what they’ve done.

    Trust me, I share your temptation in this (even though I know that it is a Bad Idea).

  12. I fail to see what freedom of speech has to do with this. An angry posse of Muslims did not attack the film makers/distributors/supporters in their suburban enclaves.

    This is the fundamental problem with the vaunted soft power of the United States. If we expect to conquer the world by the power of our, um, culture, then we might have a strategic responsibility to control and exercise that culture in a helpful way. If, on the other hand, out culture can easily be portrayed as ignorant, schlock propaganda like this film trailer, then we might rightly expect that a fair number of people will wind up not liking us very much.

    And so we want it both ways. Accept our MacDonalds and our Coca-Cola (that’s pretty much the extent of American culture, right? I mean it’s not like we really back up our professed culture of freedom and democracy if a tyrant is willing to sell us oil or torture people for us), but never mind the crazy fucks spewing stupidity. And certainly don’t take out your distaste for American culture on governmental outposts or representatives abroad.

    That’s an unacceptable response to our soft power.

  13. Of course we don’t have a “Ministry of Culture” or a “Department of Culture” to promote its development. We leave that (mostly) to private individuals and foundations and corporations.

    You’re right though, this is a right+responsibility issue where some people do not want to hear about the latter but are sure mighty protective of the former.

  14. Oh man. I’m going to swim against the tide here. I’m sure I’ll pay a price. Nevertheless …

    I have no love for Terry Jones. I know that part of Florida very well, and it doesn’t surprise me a bit that it’s thrown up yet another raving bigot. That’s what it does best. If Jones had a heart attack and died tomorrow, no tears would be shed in this house.

    Having said that, I cannot imagine any excuse, whatsoever, for perpetrating violence on anyone because of what that or any other person said in the political/religious sphere, anymore than I can imagine any excuse for rape, even if a woman walks naked through a Sex Offenders Anonymous meeting. I put the blame here squarely on the killers. If their delicate sensibilities were offended by Jones, so what? It might justify a strongly worded response. That would be justified. But violence? I don’t think so.

    Is violence sometimes justified by the words of another? Sure. If someone says to you, “I’m going to kill you,” and you have good reason to believe he means it, you may well be justified in striking first. But that’s a direct threat. Political speech? Religious speech? Not only no, but HELL no.

    Is Jones an asswipe? Sure. Is he a despicable scumbag who endangered other people by his recklessness, knowing as he does that he was bound to incite a violent reaction among the ultra-orthodox in the Muslim world? You bet. What he did was stupid. But he is in no way responsible, in my book, for criminal, murderous acts perpetrated by the vermin who murdered these people. They did that based on … a video. Seriously. A video.

    That’s all on them.

    • JS: I agree (as I think my earlier comment suggests). The thing is, this isn’t either/or. Condemning Jones doesn’t have to let the killers off the hook. It really is a both/and. To my way of thinking, what Jones did doesn’t make him even a smidge responsible for what the terrorists did, but he is responsible for what HE did and does, which is fostering hate and ignorance and perhaps, in some cases, fomenting violence.

      One is an issue of murder and possibly (we’re still waiting on facts to roll in here) state-sponsored terror. The other is a case of dramatic irresponsibility and hate speech. It may not be yelling fire in a crowded theater, but it does strike me as yelling fire on the sidewalk just in front of the crowded theater.

      In other words, despite the chain of events and the popular reaction and the media coverage, I see these as discrete issues that have to be kept separate.

  15. I second the idea of condemnation for ALL of those who acted outside of the law. What the “mob” (organized or not) did in Libya was wrong and criminal. But EVERY person who helped produce, publicize, and distribute the video KNEW that they were throwing gasoline on a pile of dynamite and matches. This was not ignorance–it was incitement. The “smartest” (and I use that term VERY loosely) tried to hide behind aliases and pseudonyms. The others, motivated by faith, ego, or hate, put their real names on their support.

    I’m not sure whether the “incitement” or “fighting words” doctrines holds sway here, but acting when you know your actions will result in violence sure seem criminal to me. And at least one member of the production team has acknowledged warning about the consequences of what they were doing.

  16. Sorry Sam and Cat. We’ll just have to disagree on this one. I hope Terry accidentally bathes in a vat of sulphuric acid, and soon, but I don’t blame him for this one. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a part of the country that, not too many years before my birth, was lynching people for saying the “wrong” thing; then insisting that “he brought it on himself.” The way I see it (and I’m not likely to change) is that anyone should be allowed to say anything they want in the political/religious arena. Those who take offense and go on the rampage are the problem, not those saying what they want to say.

    • Well, free speech means you have the right to say anything you like. It does not mean that you have the right to be free from consequences of that speech, and the law already acknowledges this when it comes to things like slander, for instance. There are cases where you can be held to account for what you say, so the question at that point becomes is this one of them, or should it be?

      Not saying it should, and I fully agree with you that when you go on the rampage over what somebody says that’s on you 100%. This is why I was arguing that I see these as issues we need to unhitch from each other.

  17. Romney has to accept some responsibility for the shitstorm of right-wing blather that has broken out on the internet since he blurted his attack on Obama. Some eye balm would be appreciated.

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