Andrew McCarthy is one of our most percipient commentators on law and on Islam, writing with a clarity and knack for grasping the essential that are a joy, and an education, to behold. In his PJM column today, both aspects of his expertise are on display. The column is called “It’s Not Just Obama’s Lies — It’s the Premise of Obama’s Lies,” and it takes off from Candy Crowley’s effort in Tuesday’s debate to save face for Obama over the Libyan disaster. We all know now that that attack, which left an American ambassador and three other Americans dead, was a coordinated assault timed to coincide with the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
He wishes to forget it now, but President Obama spent the first two weeks following the attack claiming that the attack was sparked by a jejune Internet video that is rude about Mohammed. He sent his ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, on a TV-tour to say just that (the attack was “spontaneous, not premeditated”), and he himself said essentially the same thing September 19 on David Letterman’s show. Crowley fudged the point, “aided and abetted” President Obama’s lies, and doubtless ended her career as a debate moderator by her immoderate, clearly partisan behavior.
That point, I believe, is pretty widely understood. But Andy makes the important further point that what’s most troubling about the episode is not Obama’s lies — perhaps “misrepresentations” sounds a bit better — but the premise that stands behind his lies.
Remember the way the controversy evolved. The president’s contention was that the violence was caused by the video. It turns out that the violence was not caused by the video but, pace Susan Rice, was a carefully premeditated attack. The unspoken premise here is that if the president, Rice, et al. had been correct about the video’s having triggered the violence then the filmmaker in question would be responsible for that violence. (By the way, what happened to that filmmaker anyway? The last time I checked, he had been arrested and, according to some reports, was being held in solitary confinement.)
Here’s the issue: You pursue your constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech. Ahmed over there doesn’t like the cartoon you drew, the book you wrote, or the film you made, ergo he murders some nuns in Somalia and burns down assorted embassies around the world. Is it the author of the cartoon, the book, the filmmaker who is responsible for the carnage? Answer: no. It’s Ahmed and his friends who perpetrated the violence.
As Andy notes, “It is as though we have conceded that, if the movie had actually triggered protests that led to violence (as Islamist protests are wont to do), responsibility for that violence would lie with the filmmakers. The culprit would be our culture of liberty and reason, not the anti-democratic culture of the Muslim Middle East.” But that, as he argues, “is dangerous nonsense.” Here’s the bottom line:
Constitutionally protected speech can never be legitimized as a cause of violence. Period.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this point. As various (mostly Islamic) governments and other international bodies around the world contemplate bringing back laws against blasphemy, the central, bedrock principle of free speech, a veritable lifeline of democracy, is at risk.
The Obama administration has been complicit in this attack on the First Amendment, subverting the law by resorting to extra-legal means to achieve the same ends. What happened to Nakoula Nakoula, the alleged producer of that Internet video, is one example. Others are the bullying speeches administration officials, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on down, have made and the Pakistani television commercials that, at U.S. taxpayer expense, criticize the video and its author. As Andy observes, “These fundamentally betray the federal government’s principal duty to safeguard American liberties against foreign threats.”
Note well: “But it is not just our security that is at stake; it is our capacity to maintain the free-flow of ideas a self-governing people must have in order to flourish.”
Rubbish masquerading as art is nothing new. Some of us have spent a good deal of time criticizing puerile acts of “transgression” that, more and more it seems, have replaced serious artistic endeavor.
It is one thing, however, for individuals to criticize art that is meretricious or worse. It is quite another for the federal government to insinuate itself into the process, intruding on the metabolism of free expression in order to further a political end. “When government’s coercive power is put in the service of the heckler’s veto,” Andy observes, “when it becomes the ‘ad hoc nullification machine’ by which corrupt officials smother constitutional protections that inconvenience their cronies, then that government is no longer legitimate.”
The issue here goes far beyond the shameless partisanship of a debate moderator, far beyond the particular lies of particular elected officials. What we see percolating down through the fissures of the body politic is a corrosive mixture that, unchecked, will eat away at the very foundations of our free society. “It is not enough,” Andy concludes, “to reject Obama’s lies. It is essential to reject the premise of his lies. In our society, we get to say unkind things about icons, just as we get to speak vigorously in their defense. It is for us, the sovereign people, to weigh the merits of these competing claims, without government’s meddling thumb on the scale. That is a big part of what makes Western civilization civilized.”