Commentary: Are U.S. officials right to condemn and discourage an inflammatory film?

The Sacramento BeeOctober 4, 2012 

THE ISSUE: Demonstrations across the Muslim world – including a deadly attack last week on a U.S. Consulate in Libya – may have been triggered by a video called "Innocence of Muslims." U.S. officials condemned the video, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff went so far as to call Terry Jones, a Florida pastor known for his anti-Islamic views, to discourage him from promoting the film.

Are U.S. officials right to condemn and discourage an inflammatory film?

Ben Boychuk: No

Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech – and government officials should make no calls urging private citizens to shut up lest they rile up religious fanatics halfway around the world.

It should be a scandal that no less than the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would take the time to phone a publicity-seeking Florida preacher over an obscure movie that practically nobody had seen before last Tuesday. The Rev. Terry Jones had promoted a 14-minute trailer for "Innocence of Muslims," a movie that presents Muhammad as a philandering fraud.

Gen. Martin Dempsey phoned Jones "over concern that the violence incited by the film would pose risks to U.S. service members around the world," according to a Pentagon spokesman.

Dempsey's concern is understandable. But given the low bar for inciting violence in the Middle East and South Asia, the chairman had better have an excellent long-distance calling plan. Or maybe he has better things to do?

Last week wasn't the first time top federal officials bothered with Jones. In 2010, when Jones gained notoriety for a plan to hold a bonfire of Qurans, he took calls from then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus.

"We're concerned that the images from the burning of a Quran would be used in the same way that extremists used images from Abu Ghraib – that they would in a sense be indelible," said Petraeus, who was commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan at the time.

Petraeus is a brilliant tactician, but his grasp of first principles is weak. Abu Ghraib was uniquely evil because American soldiers used their power and authority to molest, degrade, and abuse Iraqi prisoners of war.

Whatever else Terry Jones may be, he is still a private American citizen, not a government representative. Jones has no power beyond his pulpit. He is entitled to say what he believes about Islam as a religious doctrine. If he wants to recommend a poorly made film about the Muslim prophet to his congregation, that's hardly the government's business.

Nor should Obama administration officials fall over themselves to blame and apologize for the 14-minute video as the sole cause of the violence that tore through the Muslim world last week.

Incredibly, the White House asked Google to investigate whether the video, which only a few thousand people had seen since July, violated the site's "terms of service."

Google, to its credit, did not remove the video. But the administration shouldn't have made the chilling request in the first place. This is no time to carve out novel exceptions to the First Amendment. Americans mustn't let the heckler's veto become an Islamist veto.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. (www.city-journal.org/california)

Pia Lopez: Yes

The First Amendment does not mean, as Ben seems to imply, that we bite our tongues and keep silent when somebody expresses offensive opinions. It means that we are free to denounce those opinions and express our own views.

What can possibly be wrong with the U.S. government making it absolutely clear that it had nothing to do with the YouTube film produced by cranks in California that portrays Prophet Muhammad as a homosexual and womanizer? That we find it reprehensible? That it doesn't represent our values?

And, further, stating just as clearly that insults to religion should not be an excuse for violence?

This is no apology. This is truth.

Google, which owns YouTube, is under no obligation to host anybody's movies or political opinions. The National Security Council says it reached out "to call the video to their attention and ask them to review whether it violates their terms of use." It did not ask Google to remove the video – and it did not.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke with the Rev. Terry Jones, expressing his concerns and asking him to consider withdrawing support for the film – just as then- Defense Secretary Robert Gates did two years ago in asking Jones not to go through with a public burning of the Quran.

Ben condemns Gen. David Petraeus, then head of Multinational Forces in Afghanistan, for stating the obvious, that burning the Quran would inflame public opinion and incite violence. Petraeus said he had "an obligation to provide an assessment of the likely effects" of an action by a fellow American citizen on the safety of Americans.

The burning did not take place. But six months later, Jones did stage a burning, sparking protests in which more than 20 people died. Petraeus said the burning "was hateful, it was intolerant and it was extremely disrespectful and again, we condemn it in the strongest manner possible."

In 2006, the Bush administration denounced Danish cartoons of Muhammad, saying "Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images, or any other religious belief."

The government is not doing anything to punish Jones or suppress his speech.

But individuals are doing as Americans have the right to do, speaking out against intolerance and violence where they see it.

Pia Lopez is an editorial writer at The Bee.

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