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Why Defending Free Speech Is More Important than Criticizing Bigotry

In fact, the president told 60 Minutes that he agreed with Schwartz:

The situation in Cairo was one in which an embassy that is being threatened by major protests releases a press release saying that the film that had disturbed so many Muslims around the world wasn’t representative of what Americans believe about Islam, in an effort to cool the situation down. It didn’t come from me, it didn’t come from Secretary Clinton; it came from folks on the ground who are potentially in danger. And my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they're in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office.

"Cutting them some slack" by allowing an official release from the U.S. government to criticize Americans for exercising their right of free speech? An official release that was allowed to stand for 16 hours without any public objections from Washington? Obama is the president. He certainly "questioned their judgement" when he disavowed the statement. Why did it take 16 hours to do the right thing?

If the embassy statement was the only apologia issued by the administration, one could take their disavowal of it at face value. However, first Hillary Clinton and then the president justified the attacks and, in the next breath, said there was no justification for them.

Secretary Clinton:

Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.

How can any reasonable observer not be startled by the dichotomy inherent in that statement? The Islamist argument is validated. By acknowledging there is "an intentional effort to denigrate" Islam, how can that not be interpreted as agreeing with the fanatics that they have a point? The addition of the "no justification" sentence is meaningless when one has just given the rioters all the justification they need to attack.

President Obama's statement is even more curious:

While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.

Why did Secretary Clinton and President Obama -- and our embassy in Cairo -- feel it necessary to point out the obvious? Matt Welch:

If the U.S. government really was in the business of "firmly reject[ing]" private free-speech acts that "hurt the religious beliefs of others" there would be no time left over for doing anything else.

It's really not that hard. The values in that film (or "film") are not our values; our government respects religion, religious expression, and religious pluralism (including and especially that of Muslims, even in the wake of murderous Muslim-led attacks on American soil); and we are not in the business of approving or (for the most part) regulating the private speech of our citizens. To the extent that that message is not sufficient for rioters, the problem is theirs.

And this is pretty much what Romney said in a press conference the next morning:

America will not tolerate attacks against our citizens and against our embassies. We'll defend, also, our constitutional rights of speech and assembly and religion. We have confidence in our cause in America. We respect our Constitution. We stand for the principles our Constitution protects. We encourage other nations to understand and respect the principles of our Constitution, because we recognize that these principles are the ultimate source of freedom for individuals around the world.

But couldn't Romney have waited 24 or 48 hours to make a political attack on the president? Ed Morrissey points to a moment in the 2008 campaign when nine Americans lost their lives in Afghanistan. Obama was on CNN within hours of the tragedy and blasted John McCain.

But whether Obama did much the same thing is irrelevant. A great, big, sucking vacuum was created by the contradictory statements of the United States government on these attacks. Romney's statement may have crossed the invisible "water's edge" but it was needed as a panacea for the insipid platitudes about tolerance emanating from an apologetic White House and State Department.

In that regard, Romney was right and his critics are dead wrong.