The wake of the terrorist attacks on US embassies in Libya and Egypt has been remarkable for the reprehensible ethical commentary it has spawned. A faction has emerged in almost every quarter that would place on equal footing the inflammatory short film The Innocence of Muslims, and the murder of four American citizens amidst the storming of the US Consulate in Benghazi, some even going as far as to assign blame for the latter to the former.
This faction emerged on MSNBC, where panelist Mike Barnicle opined that the Department of Justice ought to hold Terry Jones, a pastor who has promoted the film, as an accessory before or after the fact to the murders at the Consulate.
It emerged in the last edition of the Saint, in which Lewis Kopman declared that our refusal to apologise for America has caused us to yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre… Perhaps it is time, however, that we did learn to sympathise with those whom we have offended or hurt.
Most disgracefully of all, it emerged in a press release by the US Embassy in Cairo, also a victim of riotous mobs; we firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
The debate will be clouded by those who, as above, would pounce on our polite inhibitions towards offence, and so the terms must be clarified: this is not a question of religion; a great and rightly proud majority of Muslims neither think nor act at all like the rioters. I reserve the most esteemed praise for US Congressman Keith Ellison, historically the first Muslim to be elected to the Federal Government, for having most perfectly condensed the proper ethical response:
The amateurish and stupid video that sparked these riots was deeply offensive not only to Muslims but also to anyone who respects the faith of others. It was designed to provoke, and sadly, the provocateurs successfully induced some people to take the bait. Instead of ignoring or peacefully condemning the film, they resorted to violence and mayhem.
The video indeed was amateurish and stupid – so amateurish and so stupid that I believe serious intellectual condemnation gives credit where none is due. But Congressman Ellison does all but name the determining factor that should guide our response: culture – not established along racial , religious or otherwise bigoted divisions, but the point of correlation of the individual values and behaviours of the people in our society. Our culture would regard as appropriate that we ignore or peacefully condemn. The culture of the perpetrators encouraged, if not demanded, violence and mayhem.
Our culture embraces, above all, tolerance and responsibility, and so we require a proper understanding of the content of these ideas. Tolerance is not acceptance, nor adoption, nor respect. It is most certainly not an abstention from offence.
Hillary Clinton characterised shades of all of the aforementioned when she declared that America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation, a statement that, in this context, betrays a heinous misreading of the Religious Tests Clause and the First Amendment to the Constitution, and a holistic ignorance of the principles of the Founding: freedom of speech shall not be abridged and religion shall not be established so that we may practice or criticise religion as we might do any affair, so long as we do not violate the Natural Rights of others, and regardless of the offence such behaviour may cause to a tyrannical and legislatively empowered majority. We respect the wall of separation between Church and State so that none may be compelled by force to believe, speak or act in accordance with the religious prescriptions of others, nor bullied or censored when their beliefs, speech and actions cause offence. That every one shall sit in safety under his vine and fig tree entails a safety from assault, not from ideas.
Defined properly, tolerance is an abstention from coercive opposition.
To oppose the exercise of free speech on the grounds of tolerance is absurd to the point of satire; intolerance alone can stimulate such opposition. While greater degrees of offence may discourage acceptance, adoption, or respect, our culture values true tolerance no matter the provocation, and the individual’s responsibility only for those actions that go beyond the propagation of ideas and enter into real injury to person or property. Such concepts are alien to the intolerant and irresponsible rioters. We must not attempt to rationalise the acceptability of their behaviour, nor denigrate our principled opposition on the grounds of a supposedly unacceptable offence.
In our culture, do we riot and murder at a mere offence? Consider South Park, a television show that casts Jesus Christ as a disillusioned and gun-toting televangelist who admits on occasion that his miracles were faked. Where were the riots? Consider Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, a book that does not merely make cartoonish jibes towards a 1300-year-old prophet, but rather deliberately, even academically, attacks the foundation of supernatural belief of any kind. Where were the riots? Consider Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a film that scathingly mocks the very concept of organised religion. Where were the riots?
While we might expect at worst peaceful condemnation, and at best the stimulation of rational debate, there were and are no riots because our culture is one of tolerance and responsibility. To draw a distinction on these cultural grounds as to what can and cannot be tolerated is to grant deference to fanatics on precise account of their fanaticism. We may condemn gratuitous offence, but we may never enact its silencing, nor justify violence as its response. It does me no injury, Thomas Jefferson said, for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. The picking of pockets and the breaking of legs are injuries that must not be tolerated, as too is the murdering of innocents.
True liberty entails not freedom from offence, but the freedom to offend. What are democratic discourse and scientific advance if not an incessant and unrelenting march of obnoxious offences? Those who believe the old are offended by the new. Was the Papacy offended by Galileo’s postulation of a heliocentric Universe? Was King George offended by the Declaration of Independence? Are not the perpetrators of the massacre in question fundamentally offended by the very existence of the free society we ought to defend?
Or ought we at all? Ought we to abandon the defence of our ideas and submit ourselves to any mode of slavery that might be required by the suppression of any act offending anybody, anywhere?
No. In defending the innocence of liberty we offend by intention its debasers. We offend as we are free to offend. We do not compromise. We do not sympathise. We do not apologise. We avow at all times the true and liberal nature of personal responsibility, lest we take willingly the role of the traveller in Abraham Lincoln’s parable,
A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!”