– by David Matthews 2
It was Justice Oliver Wendal Holmes back in 1919 that uttered the caveat to the First Amendment that is so easily maligned. He said “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater and causing a panic.”
Quite often people will malign that statement to simply being “you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater”, completely skipping the actual intent and focusing solely on the initial action. It changes the meaning entirely when they do that and it becomes an excuse to censor any kind of speech that “could” be considered “incendiary”. It’s like making a peanut-butter sandwich and leaving out the bread; you just end up with a mess on your hands.
The intent is important when dealing with the First Amendment. Shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is fine if there really is one. In fact, if you know there is a fire and you fail to let other people know, you could be facing criminal charges. So it’s wrong to simply pronounce that “you cannot shout fire in a crowded theater”, especially if it is true.
It comes down to intent and what you expect that action to be. In this case, the intent is to cause harm through a panic generated by a false emergency. You know there is no fire, and you know that by shouting “fire” in that crowded theater that it will start a panic, and you know doing that will cause harm. It’s not about “shouting fire”; rather it is about what the intentions are. What are you trying to do?
This is a very fine line when it comes to free speech and it is difficult to follow at times.
Last week, on the same day that Americans were remembering the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Muslim extremists led violent demonstrations that attacked American consulates in Egypt and Libya, killing four people, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. The source of their supposed outrage was over an inflammatory video posted online that accuses the founder of the Muslim faith of some really despicable things.
The attacks on the consulates and the murder of Ambassador Stevens were quickly condemned by the Egyptian Coptic Christians, by the Libyan government, and by both President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney.
It is hoped that the clerics that orchestrated the violent attacks will be brought to justice. No matter how outraged people are, your anger does not justify attacking innocent people that you have deemed to be the proxies of your wrath. Those clerics that instigated the attacks intended to cause harm. They need to be shut down.
But what about the video itself? What about the people behind that video that sparked the outrage in the first place?
The video has been traced back to several extremists operating in the United States. Most of them are Coptic Christians, an extremely conservative sect of Christianity that mostly exists in Egypt. Think of the most extremely conservative Southern Baptist in the United States, with all of their “eccentricities”, and multiply that intensity by ten. And then add violence. That’s the best way to describe that faction of Christianity.
The actors involved with the production reportedly did not know what the movie they were working on would be used for. Their words were supposedly dubbed-over after they were paid for their work.
So why did the people behind this video do what they did?
It’s no big secret that any depiction involving the late Islamic leader Mohammed will lead to violence. Ask Salman Rushdie if you have any doubts. But did Rushdie actually write his 1988 book with the intention of inciting violence around the world? This commentator guesses that he would say not. Controversy, yes. Discussion and debate on the subject, absolutely. But firebombings and premeditated mass-murder? I don’t think so.
Then again, that was in back 1989. We’ve had over twenty years of hindsight and many more instances of provocation and violence to deal with. We know that any kind of depiction of the Islamic prophet as anything other than as an intangible abstract will incite violence, especially if that depiction is targeted at an Islamic crowd.
We also know that there are people around the world that have absolutely no concept whatsoever of the freedom of speech and of expression, and that the only freedom of religion they recognize is their freedom to impose their religion on everyone else. We know these people exist. Some of them even go by titles like “cleric”, “reverend”, “judge”, and even “Congressman”.
So the big question is… was this intentional? Were the people behind this movie, especially those involved with dubbing over the words of the original actors, intentionally provoking violence?
I would have to say… probably.
One of the people behind the film is Steve Klein of Courageous Christians United. He’s one of those that takes “clinging to God and guns” to a new level. Klein told the Associated Press that he and his associates went into the production of this video knowing that it would result in violence. Specifically, he believed his business partner in this venture would be “the next Theo Van Gogh”, the filmmaker murdered in 2004 for doing an equally provocative film.
Said Klein, and I quote: "We went into this knowing this was probably going to happen.”
In other words, they knew that their project would cause harm. Not just outrage. Harm.
Now let’s get brutally honest here… there is a difference between being controversial and intentionally provoking violence. Being controversial means you push the limits to bring about discussion or recognition. Provoking violence means you ignore all limits and all possible outcomes and go right to the violent conclusion. Again, it’s about intention.
The best way to explain it is if you were to walk into the worst, most hostile bar in the country. The kind of place that sweeps up the eyeballs in the morning. If you entered it by accident, not knowing what it is, and you inadvertently said or did something that ended up causing a bar fight, then it’s really not your fault that it happened. You did not expect something bad to happen. You had no idea that saying or doing something would cause a bar fight. But if you went in there knowing what kind of place it is, knowing what kind of people are in there, and you intentionally said or did the thing that you knew would start a fight, then that is provocation.
Understand that there are people that tempt fate all the time. My boss at ShockNet Radio does this when he drives around with an “Atheist” license plate and flies an atheist flag at his home. A few years back a challenge was made for people to post videos publicly denying the existence of the Holy Spirit, which according to the New Testament of the Christian Bible demands their execution. But they do this knowing full-well that the vast majority of the so-called “faithful” won’t follow through with that supposed “requirement”. There are no “angry mobs” scouring YouTube for those deniers of the Holy Spirit. Not so for those in the part of the world where their tempers are shorter than their groin hairs.
What doesn’t help is the clandestine way this video was done. Actors being told that the film was for one thing and ends up being used for another. Character names changed. Voices dubbed over. A Coptic producer claiming to be an Israeli realtor representing a fictional army of Israeli backers, and it turns out he’s a convicted fraudster on parole. And it appears that this film was being targeted at Muslims, knowing they would act in the way that they did. It does lean towards this being intentional provocation.
If the supporters were upfront about this production from day one, if they didn’t use subterfuge or make it look like they were directly targeting Muslims with their message, then that would be one thing. Then it would be a clear First Amendment issue. Even using an alias isn’t wrong in and of itself. But to use an alias pretending to represent a group that the Muslims hate worse than Westerners? That only leans the argument even further towards them intentionally instigating violence.
Make no mistake, the clerics that have actually called for the violence, that summoned the angry mobs that led to the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador, and are continuing the waves of violence around the world today, are the ones that are directly responsible. They need to be brought to justice. Even their own sacred texts supposedly say that you should not let your hatred of a people cause you to be unjust, and with this they have done much injustice. The mindless masses of the mob can afford to claim ignorance. Not so for those keepers of “the word” who ignored their own book in favor of their own egos.
But that does not absolve the people behind the video of their part in this ongoing tragedy. This video was done under a cloud of deception and misdirection. Their intentions are in doubt. They knew what kind of audience they were focusing on. If they wanted to show just how ugly and ill-tempered and ultimately fatalistic the Muslims can be, well, congratulations, they succeeded. And just as a bonus, they will get the very groups they otherwise denigrate – the ones that defend the un-defendable – to support their right to show that video.
Pat yourselves on the back, fundamentalists! Just don’t expect the rest of us to do so. We’ll be too busy dealing with the panicked “theater-goers” and the damage that is wrought from it.