Addressing the U.N. General Assembly last week, President Barack Obama tried to explain this strange attachment that Americans have to freedom of speech. He was handicapped by his attraction to a moral principle whose dangers the journalist Jonathan Rauch presciently highlighted in his 1993 book, "Kindly Inquisitors": "Thou shalt not hurt others with words."
During the past few weeks, the widespread, often violent and sometimes deadly protests against "Innocence of Muslims," a laughably amateurish trailer for a seemingly nonexistent film mocking the Prophet Muhammad, have demonstrated the alarming extent to which citizens of Muslim countries -- including peaceful moderates, as well as violent extremists -- embrace this injunction against offending people. "We don't think that depictions of the prophets are freedom of expression," a Muslim scholar explained to The New York Times. "We think it is an offense against our rights."
This notion of rights cannot be reconciled with the classical liberal tradition of free inquiry and free expression. But instead of saying that plainly, Obama delivered a muddled message, mixing a defense of free speech with an implicit endorsement of expectations that threaten to destroy it.
"The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression," Obama said. "It is more speech." So far, so good. "There is no speech that justifies mindless violence," he added. "There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There's no video that justifies an attack on an embassy." Although it is sad that such things need to be said in the 21st century, Obama was right to say them.
But Obama undermined his own point by pandering to the rioters and their sympathizers. "The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam," he declared, condemning this "crude and disgusting video," which he said "must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity." He seemed to conflate tolerance of religious differences, which freedom of conscience requires, with respect for other people's beliefs, which cannot be enforced without destroying freedom of conscience.