The attacks on US diplomatic facilities in Cairo and Benghazi, with the former seemingly continuing today, are related in some ways, but distinct in others.
What’s happening in Cairo appears to be a simple matter of mob protest. The crowd is angered about an incredibly stupid film that insults Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. Like the notorious ‘Danish Cartoons’, the film is a personal statement, privately funded and produced, that says nasty things. This film may have been sufficient cause for rioting in itself, but it might also have been an element of a planned demonstration for 9/11.
The situation in Benghazi, as I understand it, was an intentional attack on the American Consulate or perhaps on Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was in that city at the time. There were mobs at the consulate also, but their presence might have been because of 9/11, because of the film, or both.
At present, the murder of Amb. Stevens and three other Americans is being seen as a terrorist attack, carried out by an extremist Islamist group whose identity is as yet unknown. The incident in Cairo is being viewed as an angry reaction taking place in a situation where American constitutional freedoms clash bluntly against sincerely held religious beliefs.
As I’ve said in other instances – from the ‘Danish Cartoons’ to the disingenuous and dishonest film by Geert Wilders – protecting free speech isn’t important because it permits people to say things we like; it’s important because it allows people to say things we strongly dislike. The morons who made the most recent film (I won’t link to trailers, but they’re on the Internet) behaved within their rights. There is no law against being stupid.
Overreaction to the film, however, is dangerous. Protesting it is perfectly fine. Making insulting films that attack the filmmakers, their ideas, and all they hold holy is perfectly fine, too. What is not fine is to turn to violent actions or to call upon the power of the state to quash unpopular speech.
When protests in Cairo broke out – before the attacks in Benghazi, by the way – a press release, later backed with Tweets, was sent from the US Embassy. That has created a major political firestorm in the US. The release said, in part, “We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
That is actually not what the US ‘firmly believes’. It is so far off the mark that President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and presidential challenger Romney have all repudiated it. What is more shocking to me is that this message came from a senior Foreign Service Officer, the Counselor for Public Affairs, who sent it out after being told not to do so.
I did not know Amb. Stevens; we never met. I don’t believe I know the other three Americans killed in Benghazi. It nevertheless pains me to have American diplomats killed and diplomatic facilities attacked. I have known many other diplomats who were killed, in contravention to the Vienna Conventions and in affronts to human dignity. This does bother me, intensely. If diplomats are going to be chased out of a country, then there is no room for dialogue. What will be left is more violence. The world does not need that.