The Times West Virginian

Opinion

September 30, 2012

Mindless violence can’t be an accepted reaction to offensive expression of opinion

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

These words — the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — bear special significance in the wake of world events of recent weeks.

In July, a 14-minute trailer for the film “Innocence of Muslims” was posted on YouTube, leading to protests around the Middle East. The violence broke out Sept. 11 and has spread since, killing dozens, including Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.

The assault in Benghazi on Sept. 11, the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, that killed Stevens and three other Americans has since been labeled as a terrorist attack and not a spontaneous response to the anti-Islam video.

A California man, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a Coptic Christian originally from Egypt, went into hiding after he was identified as the man behind the trailer, which depicts Muhammad as a womanizer, religious fraud and child molester.

Enraged Muslims have demanded punishment for Nakoula, and a Pakistani cabinet minister has offered a $100,000 bounty to anyone who kills him.

Nakoula is now jailed, but not because of the film. Citing a lengthy pattern of deception, U.S. Central District Chief Magistrate Judge Suzanne Segal said on Thursday that Nakoula should be held after officials said he violated his probation from a 2010 check fraud conviction. After his 2010 conviction, Nakoula was sentenced to 21 months in prison and was barred from using computers or the Internet for five years without approval from his probation officer.

This case — as terribly painful as it is — offers so many lessons about free speech, a concept central to the United States of America.

As President Barack Obama noted last week is an address to the United Nations, the U.S. government had nothing to do with the video and “its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity. It is an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well.”

The president added, “We understand why people take offense to this video because millions of our citizens are among them. I know there are some who ask why don’t we just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws. Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.

“Here in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs. As president of our country, and commander in chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so. Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views — even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do so not because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened.”

In the United States, free expression — even offensive moves such at disruption of military funerals — is usually met not with violence but anger. As Obama noted, “The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech.”

We realize that, unfortunately, all the world’s people are not as free as Americans. The United States can not import its values on other countries, just as they can not impose their will on Americans.

It’s called freedom.

The world can move toward a more peaceful existence with acceptance of multiple viewpoints on even the most sensitive of issues and the ability to compete without a battle to the death.

As Obama told world leaders in New York, “There is no speech that justifies mindless violence.”

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