But in retrospect, I have a bit more sympathy with those self-anointed defenders of free speech. It was, in its way, a thoroughly American, even patriotic reaction. Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, remarked -- in 1775! -- that the proto-Americans of the colonies had a tendency to nip attacks on liberty in the bud. "In other countries the people ... judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance," but in the American colonies, "they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze."
Fast-forward to another September 11. Failing to anticipate a terrorist attack on the anniversary of 9/11, four Americans, including our ambassador, were murdered in a pre-planned and coordinated terrorist assault in Libya. White House officials said they believed it wasn't a terrorist attack but a spontaneous reaction to a video insulting the Muslim prophet Muhammad. There is a debate as to whether they knew all along that was untrue. There is no real debate that officials learned very early that it was untrue and continued to lie about it -- or at least wildly and dishonestly exaggerate the role the video played.
President Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, hammered the video story. Clinton vowed to the grieving families of the victims that she would get the makers of the video, not the murderers themselves. The White House asked Google if it could censor the video from YouTube. Google partially complied, blocking it in Libya and Egypt. (Later, a U.S. appeals court ordered the film removed entirely.)
Our embassy in Egypt was widely seen to apologize for the video in a statement to protestors there. The administration bought television ads on Pakistani TV apologizing for the video and disassociating the U.S. from it. Obama spoke to the U.N. about the video, explaining that we can't ban such things because of our Constitution. Still, the director was arrested. A picture of him being hauled off in handcuffs was splashed in newspapers around the world.
All this fueled an earnest debate about the downside of free speech in America. Cable news networks, op-ed pages and public radio lit up with "expert" commentary about how we must find ways to accommodate the sensibilities of Muslims who don't understand or care about free speech. And much of the crowd that once set about to "snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze" when George W. Bush was president said nary a word.
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