President Obama's United Nations address has received a great deal of scrutiny, including yesterday's sharp take from Katie. She and Allahpundit both pointed out Obama's contradictory admonitions and behavior. In an interview taped Monday, the president told the ladies of 'The View' that the best course of action is to ignore offensive speech -- then he highlighted and denounced an inflammatory YouTube video six times in an internationally-televised speech the very next day. Obama took care to sound all the right notes for his domestic audience (affirming free speech, asserting America's right to vigorously defend her interests, and condemning violence), but as others have noted, his speech also contained some profoundly troubling passages. Many people have focused on one line in particular:
"The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam."
This is an unsettling sentiment coming from the leader of the free world. What does he mean, exactly? The future doesn't "belong" to people who choose to mock or criticize or insult a major religious figure? Actually, the future must belong to free people who exercise the right to express themselves in a host of ways -- including through unseemly speech, such as blasphemy. The future must not belong to those who would fly into a rage over real or perceived religious slights, then menace or harm those whose speech offended them. President Obama undermined his own statement of principle regarding the sanctity of free speech when he qualified that message by asserting that certain speakers are not proper heirs to our nebulous shared future. He went even further later, stating that this latest piece of online gutter satire "must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity." Really? "Must" we also reject those responsible for the Mohammad cartoons? And what about author and provocateur Salman Rushdie, or others like him? These works have also precipitated riots, threats and death across the Islamic world. Do those who refuse rebuke controversial forms of speech also violate our "common humanity," and if not, where is the line -- and who gets to draw it? But the most disquieting element of Obama's address has largely been overlooked:
Let us condemn incitement against Sufi Muslims, and Shia pilgrims. It is time to heed the words of Gandhi: “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.”
This is deeply pernicious, especially considering the current backdrop of world events. (Some may mistakenly believe that Gandhi's wisdom is beyond reproach. They should read his advice to Jews during the Holocaust and look into how he treated members of his family). Both Gandhi and Obama are wrong: "Intolerance" is not a form of violence, even if it frequently manifests itself in wrong and immoral ways. By approvingly citing this quotation, Obama constructs a dangerous moral equivalency and advances an insidious mixed message. Earlier in his remarks, Obama sharply -- and rightly -- abjured violence. But by equating unproductive words to violence, he casually ceded the moral high ground. If (some? all?) Islam-diminishing words are intolerant, and intolerance is "a form of violence," then extremists' riots and bloodshed merely represent one species of violence reacting to another.
This is unacceptable. The words may sound nice, and Obama's rhetorical flourishes might have impressed the delegates, but any President of the United States' words carry special weight and significance. Blurring the distinction between free expression and violent behavior is a significant moral pronouncement, whether Obama realizes it or not. And he should realize it. Obama is, after all, famous for cribbing another politician's soliloquy on why words matter. In this case, his words matter because some radicals may interpret them as an American leader's backdoor justification for their actions -- not that they seek permission for wreaking destruction in the first place. They also matter because some "liberal" Westerners are now counseling the civilized world to attempt to appease the barbarians by further limiting or even criminalizing certain forms of free expression, elevating "the need for order" above bedrock rights. Throwing around words like "slander" and offering false equivalencies only serves to encourage and validate these decidedly illiberal impulses.
Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson. He is co-authors with Mary Katharine Ham for their new book End of Discussion: How the Left's Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).
Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography