Clarence Page / Politics

Why We Tolerate Hate Speech

It's not easy to put up with pinheads. But that's a small price to pay for the rich benefits of freedom.

Such is the important civics lesson that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered Thursday -- with language that was a bit more tactful than mine.

She was responding to those who turned to violence in protesting a particularly incendiary abuse of free speech: the 14-minute anti-Muslim online trailer for "Innocence of Muslims" -- a movie that, as of this writing, nobody appears to have seen.

Outrage over the rude and crude video fueled violent protests at U.S. diplomatic missions in Libya, Egypt and Yemen that led to the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi, Libya.

Although it was not at all clear who was behind the blasphemy, protesters blamed the United States for allowing it to be posted on YouTube. Even Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who took two days to come out with a condemnation of the violence, also condemned the online provocateurs by calling on President Barack Obama "to put an end to such behavior."

That's where, to borrow and old down-home American expression, he stopped preaching and went to meddling. I understand that Morsi walks a tightrope between his political base in the Muslim Brotherhood and the larger Egyptian population, which shares a widespread resentment of the United States for propping up despotic rulers for decades.

But it is important for him and the rest of the Muslim world, among other populations, to understand why Americans draw a firm line against government action that gets in the way of free speech.

Secretary Clinton delivered that message. First she made it clear -- "and I hope it is obvious," she said -- that the U.S. government had nothing to do with the video and, "To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible."

Second, she strongly condemned those who turn to violence in their outrage, especially when that violence is directed against diplomatic missions. "As long as there are those who are willing to shed blood and take innocent life in the name of religion, the name of God," she said, "the world will never know a true and lasting peace."

Finally, she acknowledged, "(I)t is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day." That's "impossible" in today's technologies, she said, and "even if it were possible, our country does have a long tradition of free expression, which is enshrined in our Constitution and our law, and we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views no matter how distasteful they may be."

That's not easy medicine for everybody to swallow, especially if they come from countries where any disagreement with the government or majority beliefs can bring immediate and severe punishment. But it's a lesson that the U.S. must teach and re-teach.

Over the years, I have met many foreign-exchange students, journalists and other visitors who are downright mystified by the extent of our freedoms. Explaining our system can be about as easy as explaining baseball (or, even worse, cricket) to someone who is new to the sport. It helps to grow up with it.

Who's behind the video? Conspiracy theories abound. Claims by a man who identified himself to the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal as the film's director "Sam Bacile," proved to be bogus. AP later found evidence from federal law enforcement officials and other sources that suggest he is Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a California-based Coptic Christian with a criminal history for bank fraud.

Regardless of who's responsible, the fact that any provocateur with Internet access can spark religious warfare should cause the world to stop and think. The free flow of information and opinions -- for good or evil -- is a fact of life. To avoid chaos, reasonable people of all faiths need to make themselves heard -- with reason, not violence.

Hate mongers and race baiters have new media power, but the rest of us don't need to take the bait.

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E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at)tribune.com.

(c) 2012 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.



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