On dit quelquefois: “Le sens commun est fort rare.”
People sometimes say: “Common sense is quite rare.”
–Voltaire, “Common Sense” (1765)
U.S. federal officials have reportedly identified by name the person behind the making of the film entitled “The Innocence of Muslims”, which has caused outrage in various Muslim countries.
By doing so, they have in effect condemned the individual involved to a high risk of being killed by Muslim extremists. This they have done with no due process of law. They were not required to make the individual’s name public.
While the film has been condemned as abominable and highly inflammatory by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others, as far as we know it was produced under the protection of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which protects freedom of speech.
It is clear that the film should never have been made. It seems to have been deliberately inflammatory.
Nonetheless, even if it is conceivable that the person behind the film is not protected by the First Amendment, certainly he was entitled to his day in court, and just as certainly it was wrong, morally and perhaps also legally, to name him publicly without bringing any charges, thereby exposing him to a very high risk of assassination.
Moreover, there is the question of what law, if any, officials may have thought he violated in making the movie, which could have given rise to federal officials conducting an investigation and making his identity public.
We live in an age where, as Mitt Romney has just proved in his incredibly inappropriate criticism of statements from Benghazi by State Department officials, people don’t always think before they open their mouths.
But federal officials should think before they put a man’s life in danger for actions that appear to be protected by the First Amendment.
There is a need for greater understanding and acceptance on both sides of this debate.
There may be an argument to be made for some form of very limited legislation in the United States that would prohibit actions intentionally undertaken, not to provoke debate and discussion, but rather to inflame religous sentiments and engender religious violence. Something like this exists in Europe. This would be the equivalent to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous dictum that freedom of speech does not give someone a right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. This is a tricky area, however, and a slippery slope in terms of curtailing freedom of speech. Any statute would have to withstand a challenge before the Supreme Court.
On the other side, returning to Voltaire, those outraged by the film would do well to read Voltaire, the Encyclopedists, and the other authors of the 18th century Enlightenment, in order to understand better the differences between Church and State in Western countries, the right to free speech which was forged through the French and the American revolutions of the 18th century, and the right to freedom of religion which received a great boost through the 16th century Reformation and the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century.
These values are important to Western Civilization, and are now enshrined in the international law of human rights. They also deserve respect.
Understanding is a two-way street.
Again, the publication of the name of the person behind the film by federal officials represented an appalling abuse of power, by individuals seemingly oblivious to the consequences of what they were doing, in a case which would appear to involve the exercise of First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.
The Trenchant Observer