Politics & Policy

Free Speech Isn’t the Problem

There is no alternative to the First Amendment.

‘No One Murdered Because Of This Image.”

That was a recent headline from the Onion, the often hilarious parody newspaper.

The image in question is really not appropriate to describe with any specificity in a family newspaper. It’s quite simply disgusting. And, suffice it to say, it leaves nothing to the imagination.

Four of “the most cherished figures from multiple religious faiths were depicted engaging in a lascivious sex act of considerable depravity,” according to the Onion, and yet “no one was murdered, beaten, or had their lives threatened, sources reported Thursday.”

“Though some members of the Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths were reportedly offended by the image, sources confirmed that upon seeing it, they simply shook their heads, rolled their eyes, and continued on with their day.”

#ad#There was one conspicuous no-show for the celestial orgy: the Muslim Prophet Mohammed.

The Onion’s point should be obvious. Amidst all of the talk of religious tolerance and the hand-wringing over free speech in recent days, one salient fact is often lost or glossed over: What we face are not broad questions about the limits of free speech or the importance of religious tolerance, but rather a very specific question about the limits of Muslim tolerance and the unimportance of free speech to much of the Muslim world.

It’s really quite amazing. In Pakistan, Egypt, and the Palestinian territories, Christians are being harassed, brutalized, and even murdered, often with state support, or at least state indulgence. And let’s not even talk about the warm reception Jews receive in much of the Muslim world.

And yet, it seems you can’t turn on National Public Radio or open a newspaper or a highbrow magazine without finding some oh-so-thoughtful meditation on how anti-Islamic speech should be considered the equivalent of shouting “fire” in a movie theater.

It’s an interesting comparison. First, the prohibition on yelling “fire” in a theater only applies to instances where there is no fire. A person who yells “fire” when there is, in fact, a fire is quite likely a hero. I’m not saying that the people ridiculing Mohammed — be they the makers of the Innocence of Muslims trailer or the editors of a French magazine — have truth on their side. But blasphemy is not a question of scientific fact, merely of opinion. And in America we give a very wide legal berth to the airing of such opinions. Loudly declaring “it is my opinion there is a fire in here” is not analogous to declaring “it is my opinion that Mohammed was a blankety-blank.”

You know why? Because Muslims aren’t fire, they’re people. And fire isn’t a sentient entity, it is a force of nature bereft of choice or cognition of any kind. Just as water seeks its own level, fire burns what it can burn. Muslims have free will. If they choose to riot, that’s not the same thing as igniting a fire.

Indeed, the point is proven by the simple fact that the vast majority of Muslims don’t riot. More than 17 million people live in greater Cairo. A tiny fraction of a fraction of that number stormed the U.S. embassy to “protest” that stupid video. And yet, the logic seems to be that the prime authors of Muslim violence are non-Muslims who express their opinions, often thousands of miles away.

I absolutely agree that our devotion to free speech can cause headaches and challenges. But so can any number of non-negotiable facts of life. Anyone with a child knows that having a kid creates all sorts of problems and inconveniences. But few decent parents respond to those problems and inconveniences by loving their kid any less. And as a general rule, only evil, incomprehensibly stupid, or selfish people would consider getting rid of their kid to avoid the inconvenience.

There’s nothing wrong with exercising sound judgment, even caution, when it comes to offending another’s most cherished beliefs. But the First Amendment isn’t the problem here, the dysfunctions and inadequacies of the Arab and Muslim world are.

James Burnham famously said that when there is no alternative there is no problem. If free speech in America causes a comparative handful of zealots to want to murder Americans, the correct response is to protect Americans from those zealots (something the Obama administration abjectly failed to do in Libya) and relentlessly seek the punishment of anyone who succeeds. Because, as far as America is concerned, there is no alternative to the First Amendment.

Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail atJonahsColumn@aol.com or via Twitter: @JonahNRO. © 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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