Fire in a Crowded World?

Oct. 1, 2012, 11:12 a.m.

Nearly three weeks after the September 11th attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three members of his staff dead, the debate continues: who should be held ethically responsible, and how?

One line of accusation favors condemning Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (pseudonym “Sam Bacile”), the filmmaker thought to be the mastermind behind “Innocence of Muslims,” the movie that set off protests across the Islamic world and may have helped trigger the deadly assault in Benghazi.  According to this line of thought, Nakoula and his fellow filmmakers knew that their actions would cause harm to U.S. personnel overseas, had no right to engage in “hate speech” that defamed Islam and Muslims, and are therefore the chief villains in this still-unfolding story.

Some pundits and commentators have even argued that Nakoula and Florida pastor Terry Jones, who helped promote the video, should be subjected to legal prosecution.  “It is not clear to me why Sam Bacile and Terry Jones are not being prosecuted for engaging in hate speech,” explained one representative commenter on the New York Times website.  “It is one thing to criticize, something totally different to incite. This film is almost the literal equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded movie theater.”

“Sam Bacile and Terry Jones have shouted fire in a crowded theater,” explained another anonymous commenter, garnering 1,371 “likes.” “That crowded theater is the 7-billion-person world we live in, connected via the Internet… At the very least, a lawsuit against them should be allowed to proceed.”

Anthea Butler, a professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, went so far as to contend in USA Today that Nakoula should be jailed.  While free speech is an important right, argued Butler, it’s not important enough to justify causing the deaths of U.S. personnel overseas.  “While the First Amendment right to free expression is important,” she concluded, “it is also important to remember that other countries and cultures do not have to understand or respect our right.”

But while this line of argument may be emotionally powerful and superficially convincing, I do not believe it holds up under closer logical scrutiny.

First, this type of argument is even more insulting to Muslims than the film it purports to condemn.  By comparing the speech of Nakoula and Jones to “shouting fire in a crowded theater,” the argument relies on the premise that Muslims/Arabs always burn and pillage things whenever Islam is insulted, like robots programmed to attack on sight.  That premise is essential to the argument; we can only morally blame Nakoula if his words directly cause death, and his words can only directly cause death if we assume that Muslims will kill in response to them.

That is racist and, quite frankly, false; out of a global population of more than 1.5 billion Muslims, a very small and fanatical faction of extremists participated in the attacks in Libya.  Human adults, including Muslims, exercise free will and make choices of their own volition – choices like the decision to attack or to refrain from attacking.  People aren’t automatons, and to argue otherwise is insulting and wrong.

Second, to argue that Nakoula and Jones should be jailed, as Professor Butler does, holds our actions hostage to the irrational whims of extremists everywhere.  Since stupid, insulting films offend Islamic extremists, this argument goes, we should prosecute those who make them.

Unfortunately, there are many things that offend Islamic extremists.  Women voting and working outside the home, say, or teaching evolution in the public schools, or worshipping a different God (or many gods, or none at all).  What happens to those freedoms when we subject them to Professor Butler’s odd logic?  Are they crushed under the relativist hammer as easily as the right to free speech seems to be?

A better response to the attacks in Libya should incorporate three essential pieces.  First, it should recognize that the vast majority of Muslims worldwide, unlike the bloodthirsty rioting horde implied by the “fire in a crowded theater” analogy, are peaceful, capable of reasoned argument, and respond to insult with words rather than rockets.  Second, it should make clear (as President Obama did) that Nakoula’s insulting, deplorable film does not represent the sentiments of the American people any more than Ambassador Stevens’ killers represent Muslims.  And third, it should make clear that religious tolerance and free speech can work together, rather than against one another – that the answer to bad speech is better speech, not misguided legal prohibitions.

Use your free speech rights anytime to contact Miles at [email protected].

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