The Corner

Thoughts on Recent Events

From southern Europe, here are a few random thoughts on recent events:

1. The real casualties of this latest crisis so far have been Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his security guards. Details of their brutalization and murder still remain uncertain, but they died horribly, their corpses were humiliated, and their violation must not go unpunished. Maybe the ambassador himself, who by several accounts was a decent compassionate liberal, would not want revenge for his own death. But though we should weigh arguments from compassion, prudence is the relevant virtue here. We must seek punishment for the sake of all the other American diplomats, businessmen, scholars, and tourists who are at risk. Our compassion now would mean their vulnerability later.
2. How, then, should we react? There is everything to be said for acting in the traditional diplomatic manner: We should demand that the Egyptian and Libyan governments punish the perpretrators. If they do so with sufficient severity, the matter ends there; if they resist or evade our demands, then we should punish the governments by withholding aid, seizing their assets, breaking off diplomatic relations, reducing visa awards to a minuscule number or whatever other sanction comes to mind. The Libyan government seems to be responding sensibly already and without undue American pressure. It’s cracking down on the organized Islamist groups (which is also in its own political interest). In contrast administration officials seem to be preparing the ground for a legalist strategy of pursuing the murderers and rioters personally through the courts. This appeals to transnational progressives in both the State Department and in international bodies. But it is an absurdity — as the case of the Pan-Am bombing shows. It would take forever, there is even less likelihood than usual that we would get the right man, we would release him when people’s anger cooled, and even if it were to succeed in one or two cases, very few future terrorists are likely to be terrified by a writ, a fine, or a Dutch prison. But see point (3):
3. A metaphorical casualty of this crisis — even at this early stage — is the reputation of the Obama  administration (and of liberal statecraft in general) for sophistication. Watching its spokesmen such as the hapless Susan Rice vainly seeking to maintain that these riots are solely and simply a reaction to an anti-Islamic video-trailer that has been on YouTube for weeks is like watching a very weak swimmer being swept out to sea — in Stevie Smith’s famous line, “not waving but drowning.” Does the State Department not know, for instance, that manufacturing pretexts for religious outrage is Lesson One in the Mideast lexicon of foreign-policy stratagems? The most obscene cartoons of Mohammed that provoked riots throughout the Middle East were actually added by the Muslim clerics who toured the region brandishing them; the Imam who accused a 14-year-old Christian girl of blasphemy has now himself been arrested for disfiguring the Koran and telling co-conspirators that this was the way to drive Christians from Pakistan. This kind of thing has been happening for centuries, but it happens more when both conspirators and rioters are unafraid of any consequences to themselves. The Obama administration has advertised its impotence as evidence of its virtue and pro-Islamic attitudes. Our Islamist enemies have noticed the first and seem unimpressed by the second. Unless the administration proposes to convert the Americans en masse to Islam — as Disraeli once said, “like the Chinese general who baptized his army with a hosepipe” — radical Islamists will continue to be unimpressed. Nothing less will be enough for them; closing down the First Amendment is just a starter. Of course, statesmen and even mere calculating politicos are skeptical of these doctrines as much in the Middle East as they are in Chicago. Also as in Chicago, however, they tend to get religion when their constituents do and when there are no countervailing pressures. Obama’s speech in Cairo was a promise of no countervailing pressures. It’s taken three years, but the locals have finally caught on.#more#
4. My theory of the media’s reaction to this crisis is a simple one: As soon as these weighty movers and shakers heard the news, they thought: “Oh, no, not a Tehran hostage crisis too!” So much of the president’s record was already looking like a re-run of Jimmy Carter (the first post-American president, as I called him in The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister) that the addition of a second hostage crisis would surely be the final mark of doom for his presidency. And how could the cleverest man in the world possibly be a second Jimmy Carter? It couldn’t happen. They would save him from this fate. Hence the curious lack of interest by the media in a serious foreign-policy crisis; the fact that U.S. papers were repeately beaten to the story by Fleet Street hacks; their concentration on secondary issues such as whether Mitt Romney had issued a sensible comment at an inappropriate time (if that’s secondary — I would rather have thought it a fifth-order issue); and so on. Vladimir Bukovsky once pointed out to me that Soviet media bias was so pronounced and so automatic that people disbelieved even the occasional accurate reports that crept in. Thus, if Pravda reported Western scientists’ saying that too much butter was bad for the heart, the readers thought: “Aha, so they’re running out of butter.” But unless this crisis runs out of blood — which hasn’t happened yet — the media will soon have to cover it in depth. And that can’t be good for the president.
5. Compare and contrast the reactions of Islamist mobs to an utterly bogus provocation in Cairo, Benghazi, Sanaa, Sydney, and other parts of the world with the restrained and dignified response of Sikh spokesmen to a real and tragic outrage — namely, the attack on a Sikh congregation by a white terrorist who murdered six people in Wisconsin last month. As in previous attacks on Sikhs, those speaking on behalf of the Sikh community have made no attempt to spread the blame for the attack from the murderer himself to America as such or to any other large group of Americans. Quite the contrary. Two Sikh businessman have contributed $50,000 to the police officer who received serious injuries when he fought the murderer. Unless I have missed something, all the Sikh spokesmen responding to this crime have done so as loyal and patriotic Americans on the assumption that almost all other Americans (i.e., except the murderer and his immediate circle) would share their distress. I believe their assumption is largely correct. But their reaction will make it more so. And it is a proof that the traditional policy of “Americanization” has the power to assimilate new (generally non-Judeo-Christian) religious communities within a wider common culture with a clearly democratic character.
6. I am sure that most American Muslims have very similar reactions to violent events involving other Muslims either as victims or as perpretators. They feel vicariously ashamed of the violence now being used by Muslims against American diplomats in North Africa and the Middle East; they feel sympathy for Muslim victims of religious or political violence; and when such violence occurs in America, they are tempted to blame not the perpretators but the “Islamophobia” of the wider society. Many Muslim religious leaders, groups such as CAIR, and some ordinary Muslims embrace this temptation without restraint. They blame America for the attacks launched against us as much as for America’s involvement in military action in the Muslim world. Those Muslims who reject this stance should be more vocal in speaking out against such arguments and more active in supporting Muslim organizations that are truly mainstream and even patriotic. Otherwise more Americans will be tempted to believe the obverse of the Islamophobia argument: that there is an irreconcilable division between Islam and U.S. democracy. This is an argument that cannot be settled in theory until it is settled in practice by the vast majority of Muslims’ choosing democracy — and defending their choice unapologetically both in mosques and on public platforms.
 7. Will Monty Python still go ahead with their planned filming of The Life of Saif? Its closing chorus, “Always look on the Bright Side of Death,” is said to be a show-stopper — literally! Okay, mocking other people’s deepest beliefs is always bad manners and usually poor ethics. We shouldn’t do it lightly, especially when the beliefs mocked go to the heart of other people’s identity. Sometimes, however, it is a necessary duty — the Danish cartoons were a serious attempt to defend Denmark’s tradition of free speech against creeping Islamization — and free speech is always a right that we should defend even when we disagree with a particular exercise of it. Artists, dramatists, novelists, comedians, journalists, and not least readers all have an interest in maintaining a right to offend. When Muslims have been offended, however, most of the creative classes have run for cover. Their courage, much praised by themselves up to that point, has somehow let them down. Since courts in Britain, Canada, Australia, Sweden, Norway, and elsewhere have all encroached on this right in the last few decades, they can no longer afford to sit this one out.