America’s Free Speech Retreat

The Obama administration’s shoddy response to the consulate attack in Libya

On the 11th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, scores of men armed with rocket propellers, hand grenades, and automatic rifles assaulted two separate U.S. diplomatic buildings in Benghazi, Libya, for more than four hours, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Despite clear evidence of planning and the symbolism of September 11, officials in Barack Obama’s White House spent the next week blaming the attacks on a crude, straight-to-YouTube trailer for an anti-Islam movie called Innocence of Muslims, made by an ex-convict living in Cerritos, California.

“What sparked the recent violence was the airing on the Internet of a very hateful, very offensive video that has offended very many people around the world,” the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said September 16 on Fox News Sunday. “It began spontaneously in Benghazi, as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo,” Rice asserted on ABC’s This Week that same day, “where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by this hateful video.”

Most of Rice’s claims were soon debunked. CBS News reported September 20 that there had been no spontaneous demonstration outside the consulate in Benghazi. Reuters, The Daily Beast, and other outlets followed up with reports that the day after the attack the administration already had good intelligence indicating that it was a planned, foreshadowed assault by militants connected to Al Qaeda.

Even more damaging than the White House’s blame-shifting spin was the notion, reinforced by President Obama, that a single piece of bad art in California could “spark” violence in more than 20 countries. It’s an inapt metaphor, giving the mistaken impression that the arsonist is not the one lighting the match but rather the one who allegedly makes the pyromaniac angry. Such confusion of responsibility is materially eroding our ability to speak freely, while providing an incentive for those who wish to attack us into silence.

As mobs of angry Muslims headed toward U.S. diplomatic missions in Cairo and elsewhere on September 11, one of the State Department’s first responses was to serially condemn Innocence of Muslims, the trailer for which had been plucked out of months-long Internet obscurity by an Egyptian television personality the week before. The U.S. embassy in Cairo released a statement accusing the film of “religious incitement,” adding, “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

This self-defense through pre-emptive film criticism did not work. Within hours the embassy had been sacked by rioters who chanted “Obama! Obama! We are all Osama!” and pulled down the American flag, replacing it with a black banner carrying the inscription, “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.” Protest organizer Mohammed al-Zawahiri, the brother of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, proclaimed that nothing short of putting the filmmakers on trial would be acceptable.

Interestingly, al-Zawahiri is getting his wish. Innocence of Muslims auteur Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a shadowy figure with a long rap sheet and a history of using aliases (such as “Sam Becile,” for the purpose of this film), was taken into custody by federal probation officers and local sheriff’s deputies on September 15 in a heavily photographed show of force, then charged on September 27 with eight counts of violating probation. At press time Nakoula, who faces a maximum sentence of two years, was being held in protective custody without bail.

Even if the federal case against Nakoula is completely legitimate and consistent with probation violation situations that don’t involve global riots, the Obama administration took a further step to squelch his free expression by asking YouTube on September 11 to check whether the video violated company rules against “hate speech.” YouTube decided to keep the video up, although it did remove the trailer from its sites in Egypt and Libya, a development that the Associated Press announced under the tendentious headline “YouTube Blocks Video Inciting Violence.”

There is a crucial legal distinction between incitement—the accusation leveled by A.P., the U.S. embassy in Cairo, and a host of other commentators against Nakoula—and provocation. The latter is a constitutionally protected attempt to outrage people, while the former can in some situations be illegal. According to the 1969 Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio, the government may punish the advocacy of violence only when it is both intended and likely to result in “imminent lawless action.”

Even though Innocence of Muslims does not advocate violence, imminent or otherwise, that has not stopped some people from treating Nakoula’s speech as a potentially criminal act. The Carnegie Endowment’s Sarah Chayes, a former special assistant to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued in a September 18 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece that the film might meet Brandenburg’s “imminence” standard because it “was deliberately publicized just before the sensitive date of September 11, and could be expected to spark violence on that anniversary.”

This was not an isolated academic attack on free speech in the wake of the embassy riots. University of Pennsylvania religious studies professor Anthea Butler wrote in USA Today on September 12 that Nakoula should be arrested because his video “denigrates” Islam “by depicting the faith’s founder in several ludicrous and historically inaccurate scenes to incite and inflame viewers.” (Radio commentator Bill Press went even further, arguing that the filmmakers “are as guilty as the terrorists who carried out those attacks against our embassy in Libya.”) University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner wrote in Slate that “the vile anti-Muslim video shows that the U.S. overvalues free speech.”

If anything, the official U.S. reaction has boosted the value of attacks against American free expression. Hassan Sanei, the head of Iran’s state-run institute 15 Khordad raised the bounty on novelist Salman Rushdie’s head by $500,000, to $3.3 million, on September 16. In Pakistan, a country that receives more than $1 billion in U.S. aid per year, a government minister offered a $100,000 bounty for the “noble cause” of murdering the men behind Innocence of Muslims

How did the White House respond to this bloodthirsty affront? “The President and Secretary of State have both said the video at the core of this is offensive, disgusting, and reprehensible,” the State Department said, “but that is no justification for violence, and it is important for responsible leaders to stand up and speak out against violence.”

The rioters busy trying to kill Americans want the U.S. government to single out the makers of a trashy video for criticism and even prosecution. Amazingly, Washington has complied at every turn, instead of forthrightly explaining our constitutional value of free speech.

President Obama belatedly attempted to fix that oversight in a September 25 speech to the United Nations. “The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression,” he said. “It is more speech.” He added that “there’s no video that justifies an attack on an embassy.” 

But the president bracketed these important points by telling the world how it “must” respond to hurtful speech. “I believe [the video’s] message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity,” he said. “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam. Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied.”

This mandate to take offense is a recipe not just for the kind of self-censorship Americans already engage in when discussing the historical figure of Muhammad, but also the kind of active censorship that America’s critics, and too many of its academics, are recommending. If Obama ends up serving only one term, his treatment of the Libya attacks and the First Amendment will be an inglorious coda on a failed presidency. 

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  • ||

    Also, IIRC, Nakoula is still being held without bail.
    Is it typical for someone who is accused of violating parole terms to be held without bail?

  • nicole just can't even!||

    He was sentenced last week, so I assume that's no longer true. But good question.

  • R C Dean||

    Yup. Locked up for a year. Sounds like he violated probation, but this was obviously all about advancing the administration narrative/appeasement. The lack of objection from the soi disant socially liberal/civil libertarians tells you they place the personality cult above such jejune concerns, no?

  • Brutus||

    I think it was a noted Progressive that enthused, "Show me the man, and I'll find the crime."

  • Paul.||

    So, he was what, the 'producer' of the video? Did he personally upload it to YouTube? My understanding of the whole thing was that the violation of his parole was based on his "use of the internet" which, according to the terms of his parole, was a violation.

    So, just because he's the producer, does that mean he personally uploaded the clips. Like, when Spielberg makes a new movie, is he at home personally uploading the dailies from his MacBook to YouTube to promote his next venture?

  • The Late P Brooks||

    What are you worried about? You retain your First Amendment right to spout vacuous unobjectionable platitudes like, "There's too damned much money in politics today!"

  • $park¥||

    What on earth is a rocket propeller?

  • ||

  • ||

    Sorry, but this reminds me of a shitty thing I learned about this weekend.

    I went to a Christmas Market run by a large local Methodist church this weekend and bought several olive-wood carvings for christmas gifts for various relatives. It's kind of a shitty story. The church was selling these things on behalf of this group of Palistinian christians, who are stuck behind the security blockade of the West Bank and can no longer engage in their traditional means of support, which is selling wood-carved trinkets to tourists at the Holy Sepulchre. Apparently they're stuck not wanting to rat on their fellow Palistinians and help the Israelies (whom they generally don't like, despite not being muslim), but as long as they don't play ball, the Israelies won't classify them as any different from your average potentially rocket-shooting Palistinian. So they're kind of screwed. The missionaries for this church buy their carvings en masse and export them in personal baggage to be sold at various craft markets in the US, as a way to try and funnel some money back in to these folks.

  • $park¥||

    Sucks to be on the wrong side of a holy war I guess.

  • ||

    Yep. They're not down w/ the Israelies or the PLO; their opinion seems to be, "I just want to be left the fuck alone to run this kiosk, and you two can fight all you want. I don't want to be a part of it."

    Unfortunately that's not an option.

  • $park¥||

    Religion is the ultimate team sport. You're either on their team or your an opponent, it doesn't matter which other team you belong to.

    If people can go insane over which highly paid set of athletes is better than some other set, imagine how much stronger those feelings are when your eternal soul is on the line.

  • ||

    I wish I could imagine that. Maybe I'd get a better (read: less assholish) perspective on the whole thing. But I really just can't.

  • $park¥||

    If you can manage to take a disinterested observer role you can learn some pretty interesting things about humanity. There's a lot of petty shit that always tries to suck you in though.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    "Yet to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see when the image of Jesus Christ is desecrated, churches are destroyed, or the Holocaust is denied."

    Actually a good point.

  • Brutus||

    I can't wait to see what Shriek has to say about that.

  • The Hammer||

    OT, because I am in Colorado and don't get up early enough for AM links:
    http://www.9news.com/news/stor.....yid=298640

    Lakewood, CO cop shoots blindly into backyard, kills another Lakewood cop, claims to have shot a suspect who was already in custody, news report focuses on:

    The home of the suspects did contain several large dogs.

    According to Lakewood Police, two or three of them are pitbulls. Police are investigating whether attempts to control the dogs played a role in the shooting of the Lakewood officer.

    And then, this morning:

    http://www.9news.com/news/arti.....es-charges

    Owner of Colorado home where cop killed faces charges

    No mention of the actual killer.

  • R C Dean||

    I'm curious as to how controlling the dogs can lead to a shooting of any kind, but that's probably because I don't think that killing = controlling.

    Inevitable result of internal review:

    Good shoot. Officer felt afraid. Dogs were barking in the general direction he shot.

    Criminal investigation? Charges? It is to laugh. Those laws are for the proles.

  • Belgian||

    That's the worst part. The dogs were inside the house. The shooter was going around the outside of the house. The dogs were completely unrelated to the shooting. The victim, who seems to have actually been a decent man, was standing where he was supposed to be at a corner of the yard making sure that no other suspects fled from the house or yard. The shooter got disoriented, or was just stupid, saw a silhouette and fired 3 shots at it. Yet the JeffCo DA, who beat me 65,000 to 1 in last week's election because he was on the ballot unopposed, never considered filing charges against the shooter. He did, however, file charges against the homeowner.

  • Sevo||

    “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”

    Fuck you and your mythical skydaddy.

  • John||

    It has nothing to do with religion. Substitute "feelings" or "race" for religion and they would still think it is true. They just want to control people.

  • Clano'6||

    If it's a universal right of free speech, how can you abuse it?

  • Brutus||

    You and I hav crossed swords on the issue of religion, Sevo, but I swear to God that I will die defending your right to mock, slander or deny Him.

  • John||

    In four years liberals will no longer have the benefit of the Obama cult of personality, but will own the results.

  • $park¥||

    Just out of curiosity, what would you do if things actually started getting better next year?

  • John||

    No one would be happier than me. Maybe liberals and Keynesians are right. If so, good for them and thank God they are. But considering their past record, I doubt that will happen.

    Do you think it will? Do you think they are right?

  • ||

    Nope, I think that things will slowly, ever so slowly!, start to recover, because we still don't have full-blown socialism yet, and the free market is so awesome, that even vestiges of it can produce tremendous wealth.

    Then they will, 1) not have a booming economy, but have something better than what we have now, and 2) take credit for making it that way and claim that without them it would have been even worse.

    And the people will rejoice.

  • John||

    I think if Obama did nothing, you would be right. But he is not going to do nothing. A second term is going to be a dream world for the greens and various liberal groups. That is going to kill off anything getting better. And also Europe and Japan are sliding into recession which is going to make things even worse. Interest rates are at zero and they are already spending everything that is not nailed down. So they have no weapons left to fight it. The economy today is about as good as things are going to look for a while.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I hope the House is as obstructionist as possible.

  • ||

    You may be right. If so, the, "But it would have been worse!" argument will still be made, but perhaps have less impact.

    Then again, you called the election wrong, so any prediction you ever make ever again for the rest of your life should be dismissed out of hand with nary a thought.

  • Clano'6||

    And with the media continuing to refuse coverage of the administrations various screw ups, it's unlikely many people will even see how bad things are until they are directly affected. I am amazed at people's ability to put social issues before economic ones when none of it will matter if we don't get businesses hiring.

  • R C Dean||

    Here's the problem with the "continued slow recovery" thesis.

    Even if you assume gridlock will prevent Obama/Pelosi/Reid from doing anything new, the stuff they've already put on the books is just starting to spawn regulation.

    The State will go from throwing shovels of sand into the gears of the economy, to backing up dumptrucks full of sand.

    And, of course, the continued destruction of our capital base via deficit spending/monetization will continue unabated.

    Not to mention that, if there are still any economic cycles left, we are due for another recession in the ordinary course sometime over the next four years.

  • ||

    You guys are really making my future grad school/job prospects bright today. Maybe I should just stay in bed.

  • Brutus||

    I've got a kid in college right now, with two more ready to go in the next two years. Let's just say that I'm glad they are all bilingual.

  • Brutus||

    Right you are.

  • $park¥||

    No, I don't think things are going to get better ever. I'm not holding on to any kind of hope that things will get better no matter which party controls the country in four years.

  • John||

    Things will get better eventually. Everything is relative. And you should be ecstatic right now. Obama won. He will get the blame. That is what you wanted right? And Romney was going to be a lot worse.

  • $park¥||

    I'm still not sure why you think I love Obama. Personally, I don't care who wins because it's just a continuation of the same shit. I think you're naive for thinking that things are going to get better. Even relatively.

  • John||

    I don't know if you love Obama. I think he is definitely preferable to Romney in your view. And you have a right to hold that opinion.

  • $park¥||

    Election after election, the role of President is filled by some random faceless politician who will say whatever it takes to get the position and do whatever it takes to keep it. At this point they're all the same, to pick one over another is just a useless move in a pointless game.

  • Loki||

    "It's all the fault of:

    1. Obstructionist Rethuglicans
    2. Kochporations!!!111!!!!11!!
    3. Feaux News brainwashing
    4. Booooooossssshhhhh!!!1!!!!1111!!"

    Or any combination of the above, most likely all four.

  • The Hammer||

    If anyone ever wants to know what John is going to say ahead of time, just look at Instapundit and wait an hour.

  • John||

    At least I have something to say. Maybe you should try the same. You don't seem to be having much luck saying things on your own.

  • The Hammer||

    I actually work most of the day. And most of my comments are original, but the stuff I crib from other people actually gets attributed.

  • John||

    And most of my comments are original,

    Well they are that. They are original. Smart, interesting, worth reading, not so much.

  • The Hammer||

    Your comments are a lot less witty when you're not stealing them from Reynolds.

  • $park¥||

    I figured he was getting it from somewhere, but in the end it doesn't really matter where. All that matters is that there are other people out there who think like he does.

  • John||

    I know it is scary. We need to hunted down and put in camps.

  • $park¥||

    In an ideal world. It would minimize the damage.

  • John||

    I always knew you were a liberal concern troll. Thanks for admitting it.

  • $park¥||

    Only liberal compared to a socon. But I guess I don't have a problem with that.

  • ||

    Wanting to lock people up for thinking differently than you makes you an asshole compared to anybody who isn't an asshole though.

  • Clano'6||

    A good ol' UN resolution oughtta take care of it!

  • Drake||

    Petraeus' may have spilled the beans - if she is right, the CIA was holding prisoners in Benghazi.

    http://www.foxnews.com/politic.....er-speech/

  • Brutus||

    The CIA is denying it, but they would regardless, no? The question is why Petraeus would lie to the babe he was hosing.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Because she's into bondage and he was trying to feed into that?

  • Brutus||

    I don't want to get too specific here, but it's not been my experience that lying is a technique used in bondage. Kinda the opposite.

  • SugarFree||

    While enjoying the freedom of speech that tenure affords him, University of Chicago law professor and noted lackwit Eric Posner wrote in Slate that “the vile anti-Muslim video shows that the U.S. overvalues free speech.”

    Needed a little touching up.

  • Brutus||

    Let's send the men in Mao suits 'round to Eric's place aboout 2am for a little Q&A session about some of his more questionable opinions and see how much he overvalues free speech afterward.

    Asswipe.

  • nicole just can't even!||

    He really is a noted lackwit. He doesn't even look both ways before crossing the street. I say this from experience.

  • The Hammer||

    noted lackwit Eric Posner

    You misspelled "Fuck."

  • SugarFree||

    There are more prefixes for -wit in heaven and earth, Hammeratio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy

  • ||

    I think he meant to say that the entire word should be replaced, not just the prefix. Observe:

    noted lackwit fuck Eric Posner

    Much better.

  • Number 2||

    "University of Pennsylvania religious studies professor Anthea Butler wrote in USA Today on September 12 that Nakoula should be arrested because his video “denigrates” Islam “by depicting the faith’s founder in several ludicrous and historically inaccurate scenes to incite and inflame viewers.” (Radio commentator Bill Press went even further, arguing that the filmmakers “are as guilty as the terrorists who carried out those attacks against our embassy in Libya.”) University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner wrote in Slate that “the vile anti-Muslim video shows that the U.S. overvalues free speech.”"

    I wonder...does the same logic hold for the producers of the "Book of Mormon," a Broadway play that satirizes the Mormon faith? If not, why not?

  • Brutus||

    Or "Corpus Christi," a play where Jesus and Judas wax enthusiastic about the joys of anal sex?

    It's so obvious what's going on here.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    It's so obvious what's going on here.

    What's going on is that no one has had the guts to punch the bully in his nose yet.

    One day, in the near future, when America is nothing more than a myth, the bully is going to piss off the wrong person, say the People's Republic of China. The Chinese, will probably punch the bully in his nose by reducing his home to radioactive rubble. It is sad that it will require that to stop the bully, but if someone else stood up to him before....

  • Brutus||

    Everyone is scrambling to be the last one eaten by the crocodile.

    I wouldn't be too sanguine about mass extermination dimming the jihadist fervor. Putin all but levelled Grozny, and he still has plenty of problems with the Allah-botherers.

  • Sevo||

    "depicting the faith’s *mythical* founder in several *equally mythical* scenes to incite and inflame viewers.”

    Fuck the viewers and their mythical skydaddy.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    Fuck you and your tiny dick syndrome. Do you realize how easy it should be for you to attack the argument without coming across as an asshole?

  • Fluhdoten1||

    This article failed to discuss the media blitz Obama performed on the Pakistani public.

    He used tax dollars to buy TV ads in other nations where he and hilary clinton distance themselves from the video. both drawing attention to it (inflaming muslims) and providing shelter to anyone who commits violence over speech (even obama condemns it, so its justified to attack).

  • Paul.||

    In accordance with the sentencing request by Robert Dugdale, the assistant United States attorney who prosecuted the case, Judge Christina A. Snyder ruled that Mr. Nakoula would serve one year in prison followed by four years of probation. She rejected a request for home confinement in lieu of prison from Mr. Nakoula’s lawyer, Steve Seiden, telling Mr. Nakoula that he had already “struck a deal far more favorable than he might have otherwise suffered.”

    I wonder how much leaning on this case was being done by the NoBama administration? Because failed mideast policy.

  • Paul.||

    Protest organizer Mohammed al-Zawahiri, the brother of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, proclaimed that nothing short of putting the filmmakers on trial would be acceptable.

    NoBama can now scratch that one off his to-do list.

  • Paul.||

    Great article Matt. Keep it up. It's time to ram it to this second-term failure.

  • sohbet||

    very super blogos thanks admin sohbet & sohbet odaları

  • Paul.||

    By falsely scapegoating the video due to political expedience, representatives of the U.S. government inflicted material damage on the American culture of free speech. This has and will always be, to me, the biggest long-term Benghazi scandal.

    And that, ultimately, is what the damage here is.

    I want to see politicians hanging from the gallows at the entrance to town by sundown.

  • cinsel chat||

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