When gunmen stormed the house occupied by Libyan Ambassador Chris Stevens, killing him and three former Navy Seals working as private contractors, they must have hoped their actions would fracture our Arabic partnerships and test the mettle of our resolve in their part of the world. They were correct.
Had they also guessed that their murderous rampage would have us questioning the very framework of our democracy – the right to free speech – they would have again, and unfortunately, been correct.
As news on the tragic event in Libya unfolded, we watched hate-filled mobs burn our flag, storm our embassies and fill the news with anti-American rhetoric. Some enraged Americans opined there should be consequences for Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the 55-year-old Egyptian Coptic Christian who created the disrespectful piece of filth entitled, “Innocence of Muslims.”
I agreed, believing that something, some unspecified action must be taken against this idiot for using an American stick to stir up a foreign bee hive.
But what about the First Amendment? Would that not violate Nakoula’s right to free speech?
Yes, but here was my rationale. About twenty years ago I was working graveyard shift when a huge fight broke out at a downtown bar. When we rolled up about thirty drunks were throwing chairs and swinging fists inside the tavern and out on the sidewalk. We broke up the fight and initially arrested everyone except, as it turned out, the one guy whom witnesses said started the entire brawl by taunting his group’s rivals into a fight.
Free speech, I thought to myself. Sticks and stones, etc., right?
Wrong. A senior cop pointed out that the city’s criminal code prohibited “fighting words.” He was right – a sub-clause within the Disorderly Conduct code authorized police to arrest a person whose words were clearly intended to incite a fight or provoke an assault. The instigator joined the line at the jail.
That arrest felt justified at the time, and the recollection appeared to juxtapose well with the current furor over Nakoula’s insulting film and the global outrage it has incited. I even found a quote that eloquently addressed this point of view:
“This [film] has very little or nothing to do with freedom and freedom of speech. This is the weakness of and the abuse of freedom, and in many places it is a crime.”
Nicely put, I thought. Unfortunately, the source of this quote provided me with the first clue that my point of view was untenable. The speaker was none other than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The old adage, “Politics makes for strange bedfellows” never seemed so appropriate, but it was not my only wake-up call.
I received a stark reminder on the value of the First Amendment from a buddy at the hockey rink. Tom is a retired Army officer, a former Special Forces soldier and a war veteran. Vets like him have earned the right to be heard on the subject of American ideals, such as the freedom of religion, of the press, of the right to assemble and the right to free speech.
When I brought up the topic of the Libyan tragedy, the riots in the middle east and the idea of punishing Nakoula for inciting such violence and hatred against our country, Tom had a short and simple answer.
“My soldiers and I went to war, fought and bled for that right. No way.”
His answer resonated. It framed my sense of outrage as petty and small-minded. It also made me realize that the extremists who were currently burning our flag and rioting outside our embassies were only exercising privileges temporarily granted them by their authoritarian regimes.
The freedom of speech is not a privilege. It is a right that we hold in common with free people. If those filled with hatred for the U.S. believe their countries value individual rights, I would suggest the following experiment:
Burn your own flag and see what happens.