The totalitarian tendencies of the Left become more obvious by the day, as the Washington Post continues to cover itself in glory. Richard Stengel is a former editor of Time Magazine and was the State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs from 2013 to 2016. In this piece, he says the First Amendment is an “outlier” and calls for “hate speech” laws that would criminalize, among other things, the burning of Qur’ans.
Stengel claims that he is a convert to authoritarianism, a former believer in the freedom of speech: “When I was a journalist, I loved Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s assertion that the Constitution and the First Amendment are not just about protecting ‘free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.’”
His conversion came as a result of his world travel. Travel is supposed to be broadening, but in Stengel’s case it was narrowing. He says that even as he went around the world defending the freedom of speech, he came to despise that freedom: “But as a government official traveling around the world championing the virtues of free speech, I came to see how our First Amendment standard is an outlier.”
Part of his new dislike for this cardinal American freedom, the cornerstone of any free society, apparently came from his own lack of understanding of why it was so important, and inability to defend it in the face of criticism. He recounts that “even the most sophisticated Arab diplomats that I dealt with did not understand why the First Amendment allows someone to burn a Koran. Why, they asked me, would you ever want to protect that?”
Apparently he couldn’t answer, as he now responds in the Post: “It’s a fair question. Yes, the First Amendment protects the ‘thought that we hate,’ but it should not protect hateful speech that can cause violence by one group against another. In an age when everyone has a megaphone, that seems like a design flaw.”
Well, then, by all means, that flaw must be mended, and our benevolent moral superiors on the Left empowered to tell us what we can say and think and what we cannot, on pain of fines and imprisonment – right, Richard?
Stengel takes it as self-evident why the burning of the Qur’an should be banned, so we don’t know if it is because he is afraid Muslims will riot and kill innocent people as a result of the burning, and is pre-emptively surrendering to violent intimidation, or if he objects in principle to the burning of all holy books as disrespectful to the adherents of the religion in question, but he doesn’t mention anything about criminalizing the burning of the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita, etc., so it seems likely that the former is correct, and he is trying to codify cowardice into the American legal code.
Now, I don’t approve of the burning of any book, particularly the Qur’an. I believe that the Qur’an should be read carefully, and reread, and thoroughly understood. But the whole idea of the First Amendment was to safeguard against tyranny. Once one starts criminalizing one form of free expression, other forms may be criminalized as well. If the government can classify the burning of the Qur’an as “hate speech” and prohibit it accordingly, it can adopt all Sharia blasphemy laws, and persecute non-Muslims accordingly.
Or it can widen the definition of “hate speech” to include the articulation of criticism of the government itself, and there will no longer be a free society. The very concept of “hate speech” is subjective. Is study of how Islamic jihadis use the texts and teachings of Islam to justify violence and oppression “hate speech”? Stengel would probably say it was. Others would say it is a necessary aspect of understanding those who would destroy us, in order to counter them effectively.
If Stengel gets his way, and he very well might, he will criminalize what he dislikes, and likely prohibit honest analysis of the motivating ideology behind the jihad threat. What will be the effect of that? Patriots will be persecuted for trying to defend the country, and Islamic jihadists will have a free hand. Is that what Richard Stengel wants?
Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He is author of the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book is The History of Jihad From Muhammad to ISIS. Follow him on Twitter here. Like him on Facebook here.