A Late Night Response

I have just finished watching hours of commentary on the Middle East as I put final touches on a health presentation I am doing tomorrow. And I feel compelled to write.

An ambassador and other public service officers have been killed. It is a tragedy, and a condemned act of violence.

The last time an American ambassador was killed was in Kabul in 1978 — and I was in Kabul. As a senior in high school I had gone to Afghanistan on a school trip to participate in a Fine Arts festival at the American International School of Kabul. While there, the famous military coup transpired, paving the way for the Russian invasion in 1979. As an adult I now understand the diplomatic nightmare at play; not only did the foreign service personnel have to worry about their staff in Afghanistan, they had hundreds of added students and staff from international schools throughout Pakistan as well as from Delhi, India. It was an emergency, much like the current situation in Libya

And with this recent event there are a lot of voices, and so much opinion. Even as those in public service are mourned, politicians are using the grief for gain.

The stereotypes on both sides of the globe are reinforced. Over and over we see images of fires, riots, and demonstrations in Egypt,Yemen, and Libya. With Friday prayers, the worry is that violence will spread farther in the region.

And on this side of the globe the cries arise: “Jihadists” “Islamists” “Fanatics”. “They hate us” many say, fueling an already blazing fire of misunderstanding.

Yet, even as I am burdened and frustrated by an amateur film maker who, in making what sounds like a sub par film, has incited rage throughout the Muslim world, I support his right to do so.

Was it wise? No.

Was it correct? Probably not.

Was it his choice to do so? Absolutely.

That’s what we preach, that’s what we boast – that we live in a democracy that allows freedom of speech.

Over a year ago I wrote a post called “Protected Privilege, Awesome Responsibility”. And right now at 11pm, while watching CNN in a hotel bedroom in Lincoln, Nebraska thinking of my daughter, living just blocks from the American Embassy in Cairo, I looked back at what I wrote. I have posted an excerpt below. To understand the full context I have linked the post but even without that context the words below express my viewpoint.

Freedom of Speech. It is a privileged protection and an awesome responsibility. Only days before our neighborhood became the target for these messages, my husband and I had been at a lecture on the apostasy law in Pakistan. As I passed the signs I couldn’t help but think that the messengers have no clue what a privilege it is to live in a country that allows freedom of speech.  It was fully their right to be there and broadcast what I consider to be messages that are at best unwise and at worst vitriolic and hateful. No one would think to arrest them or charge them for breaking a law and this gift is not enjoyed world-wide.

And though I desperately want to rip the signs down shouting “You have no right to present God in this way” and let those around me know that this message is one of extremism and that the God I love walks among us, knows our hearts, and loves with a love that is deeper than deep, I respect freedom of speech. I know that the privileged protection of speech used on vans with venom also protects me. It protects outwardly through the law of the land, and it protects inwardly by challenging me to carefully weigh words and meaning so that I may not abuse this protection.  Freedom of speech is a gift to be used carefully and protected continually.

The incidents of the last few days are a compelling challenge to all of us who value our freedom of speech, and recognize its power and gifts, to use these gifts for building bridges; to commit to communicating across boundaries and being agents to heal the great divide.

12 thoughts on “A Late Night Response

  1. Frankly, I find this a very disturbing conversation, for at least two reasons. The MAIN one is that, in fact, much as some would like as to believe it, the video did NOT cause the rioting, and most especially did not cause the killing of our Libyan ambassador. The evidence, mentioned in passing in some press stories, but mostly skated by, is that this was not at all spontaneous (as “the video made them do it” explanations view it), but pre-meditated. Indeed, even if there were no other evidence of this, the fact that it was carried out on 9/11 ought to make one suspect such a plot.

    Buying into the video-explanation keeps us from recognizing and so dealing with REAL issues about lack of preparation, proper security, etc. If I dare say it, this all points to a serious policy failing on the part of the current administration — which suggests why THEY would prefer a focus on the video! Thus the video is a very convenient PRE-text for rioters and, at the very same time, a helpful diversion from our addressing serious security and policy issues.

    Meanwhile, the idea that the video (or actually, an amateur trailer of a video no one seems to have seen) somehow “caused” this is dangerous. It too easily allows us to at least partly justify the “reaction”, when there is NO justification, no matter how reprehensible the video might be. And from there we are tempted to move to, in fact, restrict and even punish the exercise of free speech, based on what OTHERS, somewhere, find offensive.

    A few relevant links. (Some may disagree with the conclusions of the later ones, but at least the first one is very difficult to dismiss. In any case, I think we certainly have to take the evidence of pre-meditation VERY seriously… much as most news stories now, sadly, don’t even bother to mention it as a possibility.)


    1. Interesting thoughts Bruce – while the killing of the ambassador may well have been premeditated (and I agree that there is strong evidence to suggest it was) the riots in other parts of the Muslim world were pretty clearly in response to the rumors about the movie. You’re right to say no one had seen it that I know of – but Cairo was not premeditated; Pakistan events were not premeditated – those were repercussions of the bigger discussion of the film. I saw this in Pakistan all the time – where strong reaction erupted over rumors. Your point on this not being taken seriously as a premeditated action is worth researching. Thanks for the links – I look forward to taking a look.


      1. Still more coming out on this, esp. on Benghazi. I think you’ll find the administration has to back down, at last on this point.

        But another think to think about. Even if we credit this little video trailer with a great deal of the violent outbursts of the past week, consider the following point Jonah Goldberg made today:

        “But let’s assume it’s true and it really is all about the video.

        “How on earth is that better?

        “According to the Obama administration, its policies in the Middle East are working. The Cairo speech, the tougher line with Israel, the withdrawals from Iraq and pending drawdown in Afghanistan, Obama’s coolness to Iran’s failed Green Revolution: These have all been part of the successful effort to repair the damage done by the previous administration. Yet all of that hard work can go up in smoke if some crackpot says something mean about the prophet Mohammed on YouTube?

        “Progress that flimsy strikes me as no progress at all.”


        Indeed, since we CANNOT control every individual expression (and should not even if we could), what ARE we to do if such a small flame can ignite such a great conflagration. (I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer here, though I would suggest the current administration’s polices are woefully inadequate.)


  2. This is so good, and so timely. Your title caught my attention immediately, but I haven’t had the time to read till tonight. You so perfectly wrote what I have grappled for two days to put into words: the power of our freedom of speech. As somebody that has good friends both in the Arab world and here in the states, I cringe to think the damage that thoughtless film is causing/will cause in the future. I already feel – intensely – the terrible divide. Things like this only cause that divide to widen even further, leaving the rest of us to work even harder to close the gap. But that’s the right of every American…we have freedom of speech. We may tear down, or build up. But we have freedom.
    Will we use our words, our freedoms, to communicate across boundaries, to be agents of healing? Or will we create chaos and death?
    Maybe a newly-released song puts it best: “Speak life, in the deepest, darkest night.”


    1. “Speak Life”…I Love.love that. What a truth to hold onto and to have constantly on my heart as I communicate with people. Thank you Jessica. I think of the words from the Bible in Deuteronomy: “Choose life, that you may live” — with speech perhaps it should be “Speak life, that others might live.” Powerful words.


  3. Freedom of speech is one thing. And I agree the movie maker had the “right” to create his film. However, what I find even more disturbing, is the Florida based pastor, Tony Jones, who publicly drew attention to the film and highlighted it on Mohammed Judgement Day –a day that his church created and “celebrated” on September 11th. How does this man sleep at night? Where is the gospel of peace? Where is the love of Christ? My blood virtually boils when I think on this. Does “pastor” Jones have the freedom of speech to spout such ignorance?…perhaps. But at what point do we voluntarily give up our rights for the sake of the common good, for the sake of respect and love and peace? Surely he crossed the line….!


    1. Totally agree and that’s the point of the responsibility piece. I delve into it more in the bigger piece when i talk about the an parked two blocks from our house in Cambridge saying “gays are going to hell” i wanted to throw up But around responsibility for a believer I feel it’s pretty clear. To paraphrase Paul- all things might be lawful but does that mean it’s wise? No and that’s where my frustration is the same as yours. Those of us who grew up/worked in that part of the world go nuts with the current attitude toward Muslims and the challenge we are compelled to voice: that this part of the world has not been abandoned by God, that there is much to love, much to learn and much to communicate about the incomprehensible love of God. And I too wonder how he sleeps.

      Marilyn Gardner Sent from my iPhone


  4. Is freedom of speech a God given right, or just something that we have come to value greatly in democracies. I can ‘t imagine living in a country where I was afraid to say the truth, (oh wait, I did live in a country like that, but I was always free to leave), but can rules be given to limit free speech in order to save lives? People in Rwanda who did not personally kill one person were convicted of murder because they encouraged murder on their radio broadcasts. Holocaust deniers in Europe can be convicted because if people do not know the truth about the Holocaust it might happen again. Why are we helpless to act when people say things that we know will cause chaos and death? Perhaps chaos and death are the lesser of two evils when compared with political oppression, but in times like these, it is hard to see that.


    1. Good call Anne – thanks so much for this comment – I’ve actually never thought of that. I keep on reading what you’ve written – I didn’t know that about Rwanda but it makes sense and highlights your point on rules to limit speech that encourages violence. Yet in this country we have already identified “Hate speech” as a crime. So we’ve already passed some laws on that. Where this gets tricky is that this was a film and films constantly put forward messages that could encourage violence or hate. I think this is a much bigger conversation and grateful to you for continuing it. Thanks.


      1. In fact, “hate speech” is NOT a crime. You may be thinking of what are now called “hate CRIMES” — an unfortunate recently invented category, that distorts the already long recognized aggravating consideration of MALICE, by making a crime MORE serious not by virtue of evidence of malice (which could already be taken into account in charges and sentencing), but by specifically designated CATEGORIES of victims against whom the malice is considered automatically more serious. (Sorry, in my book, malice is malice. If you prove it, e.g., by the clear viciousness of the crime, throw the book at them, regardless of whether the victim falls into the latest approved ‘categories’!)

        What then of “hate SPEECH”? Again, though this TERM is new, both civil and criminal law have LONG recognized certain types of speech INTENDED to do harm (or done with callous disregard of the harm that may result) that one might properly be prosecuted for. One key category is speech that INCITES VIOLENCE. But, please note, “INCITES violence” is NOT the same as “someone did, in fact, react violently to it”. (Think of it — are YOU responsible if *I* have a particularly hot temper and react violently where most people would not?)

        More important than all this for the current case — I believe the diagnosis is itself mistaken. The violence (esp the murder of the ambassador) was pre-planned and NOT the result of this video (which was, at best, a pretext — more on this below).


    1. So disturbing – It was the Libyan ambassador. It feels so much closer because of knowing people throughout my life who have been in this type of situation. Thanks Sophie.


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