The murder of American staff over a hate film is an unmitigated wrong. But so are deaths caused by the US that go unremarked.
Protesters attacked the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya on Tuesday night and killed four Americans, including the US ambassador, Chris Stevens. The attacks were triggered by rage over an amateurish and deeply hateful film about Islam that depicted the Prophet Muhammad as, among other things, a child molester advocate, a bloodthirsty goon, a bumbling idiot, and a promiscuous, philandering leech. A 13-minute trailer was uploaded to YouTube and then quickly circulated in the Muslim world, sparking widespread anger (the US embassy in Cairo was also attacked).
The anti-Islam film was written, directed and produced by an Israeli real estate developer living in California, Sam Bacile. He claimed, in an interview with Haaretz, that the film “cost $5m to make and was financed with the help of more than 100 Jewish donors”. Its purpose, as described by the Israeli newspaper, was to show that “Islam is a cancer” and to provide a “provocative political statement condemning the religion”. It’s hard to believe that the film – which is barely at the level of a poorly rehearsed high-school play – required $5m to make, but the intent seems clear: to provoke Muslims into exactly the sort of violent rage that we are now witnessing.
Events like this one are difficult to write about when they first happen because the raw emotion they produce often makes rational discussion impossible. A script quickly emerges from which All Decent People must recite, and any deviations are quickly detected and denounced. But given the magnitude of this event and the important points it raises, it is nonetheless worthwhile to examine it:
1) The deaths of Ambassador Stevens, a former Peace Corps volunteer and a dedicated Arabic-speaking career diplomat, and the other three American staff, are both a tragedy and a senseless outrage. Indiscriminately murdering people over a film, no matter how offensive it is, is an unmitigated wrong. The blame lies fully and completely with those who committed these murders.
2) Sam Bacile and his cowardly anonymous donors are repellent cretins for producing this bottom-feeding, bigoted, hateful “film” that has no apparent purpose but to spread anti-Islamic hatred and provoke violent reactions. But just as was true of the Qur’an burnings by Pastor Terry Jones (who, unsurprisingly, has a prominent role in promoting this film), or the Danish Muhammad cartoons before that, it is – and it should be – an absolute, unfettered free speech right to produce films no matter how offensive their content might be.
The US has steadily eroded free speech rights in the name of fighting terrorism by criminalizing pure political speech it deems dangerous and prosecuting Muslims who express those prohibited ideas. Attempts to constrain the rights of individuals to produce anti-Muslim films like the trash produced by Bacile and friends are just as dangerous and wrong as all other efforts to constrain free speech. Free speech is a vital liberty – arguably, the central one – and what it means, at its core, is that the right to express even the most repellent and inflammatory ideas is just as inviolable as the right to express inoffensive or conventional ones.
3) It is hard not to notice, and be disturbed by, the vastly different reactions whenever innocent Americans are killed, as opposed to when Americans are doing the killing of innocents. All the rage and denunciations of these murders in Benghazi are fully justified, but one wishes that even a fraction of that rage would be expressed when the US kills innocent men, women and children in the Muslim world, as it frequently does. Typically, though, those deaths are ignored, or at best justified with amoral bureaucratic phrases (“collateral damage”) or self-justifying cliches (“war is hell”), which Americans have been trained to recite.
It is understandable that the senseless killing of an ambassador is bigger news than the senseless killing of an unknown, obscure Yemeni or Pakistani child. But it’s anything but understandable to regard the former as more tragic than the latter. Yet there’s no denying that the same people today most vocally condemning the Benghazi killings are quick and eager to find justification when the killing of innocents is done by their government, rather than aimed at it.
It’s as though there are two types of crimes: killing, and then the killing of Americans. The way in which that latter phrase is so often invoked, with such intensity, emotion and scorn, reveals that it is viewed as the supreme crime: this is not just the tragic deaths of individuals, but a blow against the Empire; it therefore sparks particular offense. It is redolent of those in conquered lands being told they will be severely punished because they have raised their hand against a citizen of Rome.
Just compare the way in which the deaths of Americans on 9/11, even more than a decade later, are commemorated with borderline religious solemnity, as opposed to the deaths of the hundreds of thousands of foreign Muslims caused by the US, which are barely ever acknowledged. There is a clear hierarchy of human life being constantly reinforced by this mentality, and it is deeply consequential.