Free speech isn't free
Published: Monday, September 17, 2012
Updated: Monday, September 17, 2012 13:09
A wise man once said that with great power comes great responsibility. Those to whom power is granted are expected to be judicious and restrained in the exercise of that power.
Americans have been granted great power in the form of freedom of speech. We call it a right, but it’s not one enjoyed by most throughout the world, so that makes it extremely powerful when we exercise it.
The First Amendment gives us the right to say what we want, challenge the decisions of our government, worship the deity of our choice, and generally do things that would be illegal and possibly very dangerous in a lot of countries around the world. Because it’s been enshrined in our founding document for nearly 200 years, we take it for granted. And sometimes in our enthusiasm, we forget that what we say has an effect far beyond our borders.
Take the recent events of Sep. 11. This year, on the anniversary of the attacks, American embassies in Libya, Egypt and Yemen were surrounded by protesters and, in an apparently pre-planned and coordinated move, attacked by terrorists armed with rocket propelled grenades and assault rifles. By the end of the day, when the smoke had cleared, four Americans, including the ambassador to Libya, were dead.
The protests were allegedly orchestrated in reaction to a poorly acted and rather pathetic independent movie, directed and produced in America by a shadowy, mysterious filmmaker apparently under a pseudonym. The film, “The Innocence of Muslims,” portrayed the prophet Muhammad in various undignified ways considered blasphemous by Muslims.
Remember what I was saying about great power and responsibility? This isn’t the first time an American, using his powers of free speech, applied them in a way that put his countrymen’s lives at risk. I direct your attention to Terry Jones, the infamous Baptist preacher who thought it would be amusing to burn a pile of Korans. Until, that is, defense department officials called him out publicly and told him his “free speech” would get American servicemen killed.
The trouble with giving power to everyone is that everyone isn’t always responsible enough to handle it. It’s especially difficult to explain how free speech works, to people who have not historically enjoyed it. The problem is, in much of the Muslim world the people are accustomed to living under a system in which the government controls all speech. Because of that, when an American abuses his rights the way Terry Jones and the cretin who produced this awful film have, they expect our government to do something about it. And when it doesn’t, it’s misinterpreted as approving of the deed.
Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Free speech is complicated and messy. We often have to tolerate expression that is vile, reprehensible and, frankly, intolerable. And sometimes, we have to explain to the rest of the world not just why we don’t do anything to stop it, but why we can’t.
We’ll never be able to rid the country of infantile half-wits like Terry Jones and the jerk who made the movie that killed our ambassador. But we can learn from this. We can study it and learn how to communicate and explain our values without compromising them.