Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Free Speech That Kills

It has been a rough week for the U.S., even minus the presidential election campaign where fact has yielded almost entirely to fantasy and faith. An ambassador killed in a country that it prides on having recently liberated from tyranny, embassies around the world besieged, and in the latest in a recurring pattern of attacks, military personnel killed by men in uniform under their training, in a country it is ostensibly mentoring through a difficult transition.

The immediate cause of the rage is a tawdry amateur film uploaded on the video sharing website Youtube which mocks the Prophet of Islam. Responsibility for the film was traced to a shady character in California, quoted as saying even as waves of anger spread, that “Islam is a cancer” that the world should be cured of.

The man behind this outrageous essay in cultural hatred was variously identified as an Israeli and a Jewish American real estate developer. His identity was finally revealed as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a U.S. national of the Coptic Christian faith, currently serving probation for financial fraud. He had produced the film in collaboration with a pornographic film director, who may have been innocent of its ultimate purpose. Members of the cast were certainly kept in the dark, seemingly taken in by the cover story that Nakoula spun about a medieval action film. Most of the spoken lines that caused offence, were dubbed over the original video soundtrack, and several scenes were later superimposed over a desert landscape shot separately, to simulate an Arabian setting.

The U.S. is of course, uniquely a country where flag-burning is considered a legitimate exercise of the free speech right granted by the first amendment to the constitution. There have been very few exercises of this right though, in the patriotic fervour that has followed the September 11 terrorist attacks on U.S. territory. The unspoken consensus to support a strategically inept president, drunk with a sense of military arrogance, only unravelled once the invasion of Iraq turned into a disaster.

Nakoula’s film and the violence that it provoked, soon fed into the toxic political competition of the election year. Republican challenger Mitt Romney pounced on a sharp denunciation of the contents of the film by President Barack Obama, to accuse his rival of wavering in the defence of American values. The blogosphere was soon suffused with suggestions of a “midnight knock” that had summoned Nakoula to an interrogation by the police.

What had indeed happened was little else than a routine inquiry by the police about a possible violation of Nakoula’s probation conditions. Despite his seriously provocative action, he was shortly afterwards set at liberty and went into hiding with his family.
Internet giant Google, which owns the Youtube site, declined a request from the U.S. government to restrict viewership of the offensive video. In countries like India and Indonesia though, the content was blocked to ensure conformity with domestic laws.

It would come as news to many that the first amendment has wide enough amplitude to protect a repugnant film made with intent to offend. That indeed was the message put out via Twitter by the U.S. embassy in Cairo, even as the furious crowds assembled outside: the U.S. government utterly condemned the offensive video, but was powerless to act against it. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated that point, adding that the film was no justification for violence.

There is an asymmetry in the manner in which the U.S. upholds the right to free speech, but denies those who are targets of hate speech the right to take offence. And once offended, protest is an inherent right granted under free speech doctrine. It could be said that the line is crossed when protests become violent, as with the arson attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in Libya, which led to the death of ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other diplomatic staff.

Free speech zealots should know that in the highly fraught, unsettled circumstances of the Arab – and indeed, the larger Muslim world – even the most innocuous of acts could have unforeseen consequences. Indeed, the U.S. has a record in the lawless use of force in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in patronising six decades of violence and dispossession against the Palestinians, that protests when they erupt, are unlikely to stick to the path of non-violence.

“They hate us for our freedoms”, said George W. Bush as he called his people to war in the aftermath of September 11. That indeed may be true, though not in the manner that Bush intended. Noam Chomsky had observed when the U.S. in 2001 launched its global war on terror, that the code-name chosen, “Operation Enduring Freedom”, was entirely appropriate, though in a deeply ironical sense. Much of the global turmoil that the operation was seeking to combat was indeed the consequence of the U.S.-style freedom  that the rest of the world had endured far too long.

There were other observers who spoke of the deeply vulnerable state of the U.S. economy as a key factor behind the rush to war. Two decades of relentless borrowing from the rest of the world had weakened the status of the U.S. dollar and control over petroleum – the world’s most widely traded commodity, denominated almost exclusively in U.S. dollars – was vital to sustaining its global hegemony.

The last year of the Bush presidency was the year of the unravelling, a process that has continued through the Obama tenure, though the pace has been slowed by the kinder and gentler image he has cultivated. But as the unravelling continues, global tensions and resentments will tend increasingly to focus on nation that was described by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as “indispensable”. As people make their voices heard and demand a new political and economic order, the principal prop of the old order will bear a large part of the stress of transition. That perhaps, is in the order of things.

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