By Gel Santos Relos
A new wave of Anti-American sentiment and protests has spread through more than 20 countries -- many of them targeting US diplomatic posts. Violent attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt have claimed the lives of four Americans, including US Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.
“Death to America” has been the battle cry of these protesters, and leaders of extremist groups had already used the film to galvanize support among Muslims in different parts of the world in their fight against America and the Western world.
The trigger: a 14-minute video on YouTube mocking Islam’s Prophet Muhammad that has become viral. This video clip was supposed to be a trailer of an anti-Muslim film, “Innocence of Muslims,” which reportedly portrayed Muhammad, as a fraud, a womanizer and a child molester.”
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney immediately jumped in and attacked Obama for his alleged weak leadership in defending America in the fight against extremists, and for apologizing to the enemies for our American values.
Analysts say Romney spoke too soon, including President Obama who said: “Gov. Romney as the tendency to shoot first before aiming.”
As FactCheck.org reported, “Romney got his timeline backwards. [The] US embassy in Cairo — not the State Department in Washington — put out a statement several hours before a mob of protesters breached the wall of the embassy, took down an American flag and replaced it with a black flag.”
Moreover, FactCheck.org said there was no basis for Romney’s allegation that Obama apologized for free speech and American values. Quoting the statement released by the US Embassy in Cairo before the protesters breached the Embassy’s wall:
“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
State Sec. Hillary Clinton said, “I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today... 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.”
President Obama vowed justice will be served against the perpetrators of this attack against America. The President also requested Google to reconsider its decision to keep online the controversial YouTube movie clip that has ignited anti-American protests in the Middle East. Google, has denied the request.
After being clarified about the timeline, Romney said: "Of course, we have a First Amendment. And under the First Amendment, people are allowed to do what they feel they want to do... but it’s not right to do things that are of the nature of what was done by, apparently this film."
This issue truly leads us to the debate on our exercise of our freedom of expression and how we really define what “American values” are. Is there no boundary to exercising free speech in America? Can the producers of this provocative film be protected by their First Amendment rights?
As we reflect on this issue, allow me to share with you the analysis of LA Times Columnist Sarah Chayes, who put this question in perspective:
“In one of the most famous 1st Amendment cases in US history, Schenck vs. United States, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. established that the right to free speech in the United States is not unlimited. 'The most stringent protection,' he wrote on behalf of a unanimous court, 'would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.'"
The analysis further said: “Holmes' test — that words are not protected if their nature and circumstances create a 'clear and present danger' of harm — has since been tightened. But even under the more restrictive current standard, Innocence of Muslims, the film whose video trailer indirectly led to the death of US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens among others, is not, arguably, free speech protected under the US Constitution and the values it enshrines.”
“The point here is not to excuse the terrible acts perpetrated by committed extremists and others around the world in reaction to the video, or to condone physical violence as a response to words — any kind of words. The point is to emphasize that US law makes a distinction between speech that is simply offensive and speech that is deliberately tailored to put lives and property at immediate risk. Especially in the heightened volatility of today's Middle East, such provocation is certainly irresponsible — and reveals an ironic alliance of convenience between Christian extremists and the Islamist extremists they claim to hate,” Chayes concluded.
The truth is, this offensive video was a creation of an individual who invokes his right to freedom of speech, notwithstanding the likely violent backlash against America, especially because of three things: 1. The passion of our Muslim brothers about their religion, will do anything and everything for their faith; 2. The already negative sentiment of some Muslims against the Western world, especially America, particularly the extremists -- which lead to the tragedy of 9/11; and 3. Modern technology makes offensive videos like this instantly viral, as the internet has virtually collapsed all walls between nations in this information age.
As all nations scramble to navigate our new reality, the need to redefine our values that will guide us and our government cannot be overemphasized. What are really America's values? And if some of these values collide with one another, which should prevail and guide us? How much power can and should the government have to make sure the lapse in judgement of a few will not cause the freedom, safety of the many?