This week, I started my internship at the State Department, working on Middle Eastern issues. Many of my new colleagues knew and worked with Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who was murdered, along with three other Americans, in Benghazi yesterday. The killings apparently came in retribution for the posting on YouTube of a trailer for a low-budget, obscure movie that had nothing to do with Ambassador Stevens or the U.S. government and that would certainly have otherwise remained unknown to the American public.
The murders were outrageous, inexcusable, and—what’s the word apologists for these acts always use—offensive. Not only that: they would have been just as inexcusable and outrageous had the victims been the makers of the movie. The degree of offense caused by a movie, cartoon, or any other form of expression is absolutely irrelevant to the moral justification for taking up violence in response. Being offended is no excuse, and no mitigating circumstance, for murder.
It’s not that the video wasn’t offensive. The point is, it doesn’t matter whether it was or not (indeed, in this case offense may not have even been the motive). There are plenty of offensive videos out there. The U.S. Government did not promote, endorse, finance, applaud, refer to, or know about this video until its diplomats were murdered over it. The murders, not the video, are why the White House and State Department are involved. And the murders, not the video, are all they should be condemning.
Generally, that’s what they did. The only clause that didn’t focus on the victims or on condemning the attacks came in the second paragraph of the White House’s prepared statement: “While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others…” Secretary Clinton’s remarks didn’t even go that far. She focused entirely on honoring the dead and condemning the killers. The video in particular was never referred to in either statement, and no blame was placed, even implicitly, on anyone but the killers. While I do think the administration should have been completely unequivocal, it did strike the right tone in general.
The same cannot be said of the Romney campaign, which took that grain of truth and turned it into an overstated, ill-timed, tasteless distortion that further raised the eyebrows of a public already skeptical of the Republican candidate’s ability to handle delicate diplomacy. Although the right-wing fringe stood by the nominee, the reaction of most GOP leaders, normally Borg-like in their reflexive condemnation of the President and anxious to project a united front as the campaign heats up, ranged from silent to critical of Romney. Most importantly, even if the President’s statement equivocated somewhat, I have little doubt that any president would have done the same given the stakes in the region and the desire to retain the good will of the Muslim population at large.
Here Is the Outrage
I’m sure you’ve heard someone say something like this after some heinous act of violence in the Middle East: “Where is the outcry among the Muslims? Why do they only protest American policies and Quran burnings and not the murder and sabotage that follow?” Good questions. But this time, they’re being answered. These are the first photographs I’ve ever seen of protesters in the Arab world, publicly opposing acts of violence that came in response to insults against Islam. Many of them do so unequivocally.