This is not about politics. Today we want to talk about murder.
Remember that old, oft-quoted line heard in the heat of argument: “I disagree with everything you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it?”
What about this, does it ring a bell? “You just can’t shout “Fire!” in the middle of a crowded movie theatre?”
Fine. All heads are nodding.
We’ve got a new problem, folks, one that is directly connected to all the new media that’s being so broadly used around the world.
And we’ve got an older problem, called responsibility.
The riots this week in the Mideast centering on American embassies apparently are not spontaneous. As they spread from Libya to Egypt to Yemen, most are organized demonstrations. The people behind this activity are many and varied, and we can’t readily identify them.
The smaller riot in Benghazi, the one in which four American diplomatic personnel perished, is a different matter. It was not a riot at all, but apparently a terrorist attack: four vehicles bursting through the gates and setting fire to everything in sight. That 14 minute trailer for an anti-Muslim film simply provided the terrorists with a “reason” for their actions.
That short trailer was bankrolled and made by a man at first identified as an Israeli. The Israelis tell us that they have no record of this man, which is not surprising. If we had made this film, we’d be underground as well. Now it turns out that the fellow’s much-boasted 5 million dollar budget for the film was closer to sixty thousand dollars borrowed from his Egyptian Coptic wife’s family.
The movie, we’re told, was made by a consortium of people who believe that Islam is a cancer on the body politic. One of its supporters is an off-the-wall fundamentalist in Florida, Terry Jones, a rabble-rousing pastor, who has been on this tear for several years.
The team of film technicians who actually wrote and produced the movie have scattered to the wind. The big honcho, whose name is in doubt as well as his background, is said to have gone into hiding, as well he should. Curiously, a few who worked on the film have not, and have been made available to the press. Some express pride in their cinematic accomplishment and in its theme.
Amidst all the eulogies for the four Americans that were given on radio and television this week has not been, to our ears at least, an inclusive of discussion of the film itself or its makers. We believe people think that the milk has been spilled and that there’s nothing that can be done about it.
Well, we disagree. There is something that can be done, something that needs to be done as fast as possible.
It’s true that in recent years unlucky people who accidentally have started forest fires, or who have purposely created a hoax that cost public funds to clear up, have been hauled into court and had judgments brought against them for expenses and damages. We feel badly for people who inadvertently do something that causes harm. We have less sympathy for pyromaniacs.
But these punitive actions have a certain reason to them. If someone causes physical harm to the environment purposely, or causes physical harm to other human beings by virtue of purposeful design, we feel they should be punished and shamed.
In this particular case, we feel even more strongly. We feel that the government, our own, should track down the film makers, arrest them, charge them with creating public mayhem and also, finally, murder.
Yes, we know that our country believes in freedom of speech, and we uphold this, too. This is no doubt the reason why others have not focused as tightly on the film makers themselves as on their victims. But at the same time, free speech which causes destruction or death seems to us to be less free than purposely provocative and deliberately created and set loose to cause riots, uprisings, and as in this case ultimately the deaths of people whose very jobs were the opposite of the aim of the film under discussion. The dead, after all, were in the business of trying to keep the world sane and civil and understanding of ideas not commonly held here.
We realize we’re advocating something that, as the saying goes, puts us on a very slippery slope. But many countries around the world, including Britain and Germany, have laws on their books decrying what is called “hate speech,” and have imprisoned and/or deported from their countries those who abuse the public airwaves to incite trouble.
We should have legislation that mirrors the common sense idea that speech can kill, maim, impoverish, set factions one against the other.
We read that some of the perpetrators of this film have relatives who were killed or harmed in foreign wars in Muslim countries. We sympathize with them. Up to and until they go bananas and, as seems to happen every few weeks in this country, purchase an arsenal of weaponry with which to kill innocent Americans.
For our money, the director and backers of “Innocence of Muslims” are as guilty of murder as the spaced out killer of patrons in that Colorado theatre showing the final installment of the Batman series.
The single difference between them is their relative sanity that allowed them to create something destined to cause a firestorm in the Mideast. These men knew what they were doing and what might transpire.
The least America can do, it seems to us, is to draw that legislation against hate speech which exists abroad, track down the unhinged cabal who made the film, imprison and try them publicly.
Apart from anything else, such action might dissuade people not quite so creatively blood-thirsty from trying to do the same thing.
The new media play a huge role in this new problem. Uncensored and uninvestigated, ideas and writings, speeches and drawings appear without attribution. They are, as it were, anonymous.
In one way we certainly don’t want this to change. On the other hand, it seems to us that it will have to. Federal courts should have the power to recognize hate speech when it occurs, in much the same way they recognize obscenity. Remember? “We’ll know it when we see it.”
All of the above is what I’d like to advocate. Being an American, however, and believing in our first amendment rights, I cannot. Actually, within the pages of our own Homeland Security Act, enacted after 9/11, there are provisions for just this kind of federal action. This makes it, like gun control, one of those ideas always defended by adherents who repeat endlessly that we have the legislation, all we need is to enforce it.
The United States is a remarkably forgiving country, based as we know on the freedom to be ourselves.
But some crimes are beyond forgiveness, and this, we believe, is one of them.