I assume most of us here agree that free speech is one of the most important and valued rights set forth by the founding fathers of the USA. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, we’ve been testing that freedom, butting up against it, and the government has pressed up against it as well. My parents talk about Kent State and the convention riots in Chicago, and we all have the image of seated Occupy protesters in California being pepper sprayed in the face burned into our minds. These things remind us how murky the line between free speech and breaking the law can be.
The thing about rights is that the more of them you have, the more responsibility you must take as an individual for your actions and words.
As a parent, we dole out freedoms and rights to our kids as they grow older and show maturity. While grocery shopping, we keep a 1 or 2 year-old in the baby seat while we shop so as to not spend the entire time chasing her through the aisles only to find her stuffing her face with marshmallows from a bag she chewed open in a matter of one second and spilled everywhere . She isn’t ready for the responsibility of freedom yet. We ask a three year-old to walk beside the cart with one hand on the side of the basket, we tell a 4 year-old to stay close by, and so on. Their freedom requires more self-control than when they were belted into the baby seat. And as they get older and more mature, they learn to use their self-control more effectively in order to gain more freedoms.
I’m not trying to imply that Pastor Terry Jones is like a 4 year-old, but I’d like us to think about the amount of responsibility we are placing upon our people by giving them freedom of speech. We charge them with the responsibility that their words will not harm anyone else’s right to life, liberty or the pursuit of property. People fail this all the time, in big and small ways and with varying consequences.
Were KKK leaders in the early and mid 20th century responsible for lynchings in the areas in which they spoke? Are KKK leaders (and other racist groups) responsible now for hate crimes against men and women of color? The fact is, we protect the KKK’s right to spew their hate, but if they were to say, “You need to go lynch John Jones on X street in Y city” we would arrest them, right? You can’t tell people to kill other people and get away with it.
How about the legal liability of someone who falsely (and with intent to cause mayhem) yells “Fire!” (or, more appropriate today, “Gun!”) in a movie theater where people are hurt in a stampede?
So how about the asshole who thought it would be appropriate to make a film that blasphemed Islam? How about Pastor Terry Jones who lent his name and publicity to said film (without having seen the whole thing) on September 11th of this year, giving it a much wider viewership?
Terry Jones is no 2 year-old making tracks through the Piggly Wiggly, but in 2010, when he and his followers burned the Quran and called the Prophet Muhammad a whole slew of disgusting names, General Petraeus basically said that Jones’ bullshit bigotry was making our brave service members’ lives (and those of innocent bystanders) more dangerous. Jones even got a call from high-ups in the White House to knock this dangerous, bigoted bullshit off for the sake of our men and women overseas.
The Huffington Post’s Lynn Waddell conducted a great interview with Jones in which she questioned his responsibility in this most recent matter. Jones tells Waddell that he has been contacted and told not to show or promote the film because it is causing dangerous situations overseas.
Knowing, though, the sensitivity of the subject and then portraying Muhammad as a philanderer or gay, child molester, blood-thirsty, a thug, you had to know that that’s going to cause some unpleasant reaction.
Yeah, there’s definitely that possibility. But number one, our 41 points are true. They were taken from the Quran. They are Islamic historical facts of Muhammad’s life. I think we have to be willing to stay by the truth. Even though we know it may possibly cause some type of reaction; then there’s always the question how far do we pull back. We could say, ‘OK. We cannot do it. We cannot burn the Quran. We cannot show the movie.’ But where do we stop? Because actually everything you do against Islam is an insult. If you just speak out against Islam that’s an insult. You can’t speak out against Muhammad, Sharia, or Islam, so how do we back off?
Although I entirely disagree with his methods, it is true that it is hard to know where one draws the line at what is allowed and not allowed. Though it seems to me when General Petraeus asks you to stop for the sake of people’s lives, you stop. Especially when the lives of our service members and other Americans (and Westerners) abroad are being sacrificed for a cause they never subscribed to, for a cause that you decided to make them responsible for.
And it does all come back to responsibility. We are responsible for our fellow human beings—to help them, or at least to do as little harm to them as possible. HuffPo’s Waddell asks Jones about this, as well:
Doesn’t some responsibility come with free speech? In this case it resulted in acts of extreme violence and death. Do you have concerns about that?
And his replay was:
No, and I’m not sure that’s correct. I don’t think speech can be limited, to say OK, if I say this, then this could happen. I believe we absolutely don’t have that responsibility. I believe we have the responsibility to speak our mind. If we ever lose that, then we are going to lose our foundation. Of course, with actions sometime come results that are positive and negative.
Ultimately, Jones believes he is protecting the world by trying to make people see what he calls the evils of Islam. He carries a gun and locks his church. that’s all well and good, that’s him recognizing the danger he puts himself in. But does he truly recognize the danger he puts others in? (I realize it’s far too much to ask him to recognize how horrific his statements are even on their own. Let’s be clear here—he is an ignorant bigot whose statements are deplorable regardless of what happens to innocent bystanders.)
The Washington Post offered a great Op-Ed by Qasim Rashid entitled When Free Speech Costs Human LIfe wherein the author explains:
But if you haven’t noticed a pattern, let me illustrate this sadistic re-run. First, anti-Islam propagandists create and promote anti-Islam propaganda under the guise of free speech—knowing it will incite extremists to violence. Second, extremists react to the propaganda, resulting in the deaths of innocent civilians including U.N. aid workers, American citizens, and what we often callously refer to as “collateral damage,”—i.e. innocent women and children. Third, anti-Islam propagandists sit safely in their abodes, thousands of miles away and innocently shrug, “Too bad. This offensive speech is my right.” Finally, Muslims worldwide are put on trial to again condemn the violence—failure to do so is perceived as implicit approval. Yet, Islam remains maligned and, most importantly, innocent people continue to suffer.
To think this vicious cycle can stop simply if extremists stop being extremists is an extreme view itself.
We need to take a moment with that last statement: “to think this vicious cycle can stop simply if extremists stop being extremists is an extreme view itself”… While the extremists are wholly responsible for their deplorable actions against others, we are all responsible for our roles in this deadly cycle.
Rashid also adds this answer to the oft-touted trope that no other religions have violent extremists:
At this juncture, anti-Islam propagandists typically claim that, “only Muslims are extremists.” This view is entirely ignorant. Former President John F. Kennedy needed to issue an executive order to protect southern Black churches from KKK terrorism in the 1960s. The Sri Lankan government used force to stop the Hindu-Secularist Tamil Tigers from spreading suicide terrorism ideology in the 1980s and 1990s. Just last month, the American Atheists group removed their own billboards prior to the Republican National Convention and Democratic National Convention due to a “large volume” of “vitriol, threats, and hate speech” from Christians. Extremism has no religion.
So, taking all this into account, who is ultimately responsible for the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the three other embassy employees who died?
Are, as some people are saying, Pastor Terry Jones and the ridiculous anti-Islamic film being scapegoated for bad blood that is at least decades, if not centuries, old?
What are your thoughts about the role (if any) of the anti-Islam film and Pastor Terry Jones in the horrible, senseless and devastating murders of heroes abroad?
What can and should our government be doing in order to help ease the strain and prevent more death and destruction?
Also Read: How the Extreme Right is Wronging America by Cameron Conaway