The killing in Libya of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others — ostensibly in retaliation for a film that protesters found offensive to Islam — shows just one day removed from Sept. 11 that a clash of cultures is still very much alive in the world. It’s a clash between that part of the world that believes ideas should be met with ideas, called “civilization,” and those who feel it’s appropriate to meet ideas they find offensive with violence, called “barbarism.”
We need to call out the latter for what it is, and to refuse to give it a single millimeter in the fight.
President Barack Obama was criticized by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus for allegedly sympathizing with the perpetrators of the attacks, based on a U.S. embassy statement released by the U.S. embassy in Cairo — prior to the attacks — that condemned efforts to “hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.”
That statement seems as if it was intended to calm passions and save lives in the embassy in Cairo and the American consulate in Libya’s Benghazi. And seeing as how it came long before the attacks that killed Stevens, it could not possibly be read to sympathize with attackers. But it sure feeds into the fiction that President Obama is a secret Muslim who hates America, which Republicans are trying to reinforce.
Here’s the president’s actual statement:
I strongly condemn the outrageous attack on our diplomatic facility in Benghazi, which took the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Right now, the American people have the families of those we lost in our thoughts and prayers. They exemplified America’s commitment to freedom, justice, and partnership with nations and people around the globe, and stand in stark contrast to those who callously took their lives.
I have directed my Administration to provide all necessary resources to support the security of our personnel in Libya, and to increase security at our diplomatic posts around the globe. While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.
On a personal note, Chris was a courageous and exemplary representative of the United States. Throughout the Libyan revolution, he selflessly served our country and the Libyan people at our mission in Benghazi. As Ambassador in Tripoli, he has supported Libya’s transition to democracy. His legacy will endure wherever human beings reach for liberty and justice. I am profoundly grateful for his service to my Administration, and deeply saddened by this loss.
The brave Americans we lost represent the extraordinary service and sacrifices that our civilians make every day around the globe. As we stand united with their families, let us now redouble our own efforts to carry their work forward.
Now, Obama can hardly be condemned for saying the U.S. “rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.” That’s just a defense of common courtesy. But I personally would have preferred adding a little clause in there, somewhere: “But our rights and our traditions proudly preserve the right of anybody to denigrate the religious beliefs of others so if they choose, and we will defend that right in the face of senseless barbarism to the last person.”
Why? Because it’s important to send the message that the American people place the right and concept of free speech distinctly above the right of a person to never hear an offensive word about their concept of God. The attackers of the U.S. embassy in Libya — if they did so out of religious passion — are practicing the ultimate and most insidious form of censorship: murder. They have done so elsewhere in the world, too. We must always and everywhere tell them that it will not work. No one who is not an adherent of a particular religion should be bound by its codes, especially not through force of arms. We maintain the absolute right to keep our own thoughts about the religions of others, and we will not lay down those beliefs, or stop making movies, or drawing cartoons, or living our lives in a civilized society, in the face of retrograde barbarism.
Upon this, we should all of us agree, whether Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative.
UPDATE: Romney has broadened his attack, saying the president’s response is “akin to apology.” From Politico:
Republican nominee Mitt Romney repeated his criticism of the White House for its initial response to the attacks in Libya that killed four Americans, saying the statement was “akin to apology” and it was “disgraceful to apologize for American values.” While expressing his condolences to the families of those killed, he said the Obama White House response “reflects the mixed signals they’re sending to the world” on American foreign policy and values.
Of course, Obama has nowhere apologized for American values, or even apologized at all. While it certainly is more convenient for Romney to run against the fictional Obama he’s tried to create, the fact is, he’s going to have to run against the actual Obama of the real world.
And while America is the victim of these attacks, and no justification can be credibly mounted to excuse them, America is not always sinless. In those times, the only disgrace is to not apologize for where we’ve done wrong. It’s one of the many mysteries of foreign policy that still eludes Romney, who’s “never apologize” mantra is — to coin a phrase — “akin to jingoism.”