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VIEWPOINTS Free Speech
by Kurt Niece
2012-09-19

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Speech comes with responsibility. Early on in life most of us are taught by means of gentle persuasion or violent response that words, like deeds, have consequence. A polite admonition or a punch in the nose can be the clear result of the power of words.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian living in Cerritos, Calif., is part of a group called the NACA, the National American Coptic Assembly. The organization is decidedly anti-Islamic, and apparently Nakoula decided to make a video voicing this opinion. The clip was posted July 2.

Originally, a fellow named Sam Bacile; an alleged Israeli-American real estate developer took credit for the highly amateurish YouTube clip. As the story unfolded though it was revealed that Sam Bacile is a pseudo name.

Furthermore, in an article published in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg quotes Steve Klein, a man who claims to have been involved in the video's production. Klein is quoted as saying the film is not Israeli, and that Nakoula is not Jewish. Others report that the 80 cast and crew members hired for the film were misled about the true nature of Nakoula's intent, and that the audio portion of the 14 minute film was altered after production to insert anti-Islamic rhetoric.

So what does this all mean?

Words, rumor and innuendo spread like wildfire, especially when those words create havoc, murder and an international diplomatic nightmare. But, one indisputable truth remains.

A crude video production entitled "The Innocence of Muslims" originated in the United States. The film portrayed Mohammad as a womanizer, a homosexual and a child abuser. Clearly a womanizing/child-abusing gay man is at the least a colorful fictional character, but unfortunately the target audiences of die-hard Muslims aren't particularly well-suited for humor, irony or tolerance. The sixth-century Buddhas of Bamiyan are sad proof.

J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, is dead.

Tyronne Woods and Glen Doherty, former Navy SEALS died trying to protect their colleagues. A fourth U.S. resident, Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith, is dead as well.

Now, the conundrum: Did angry and irrational religious zealots murder these men or did Nakoula, the true incarnation of the man who produced the film that provoked the mob. Who is responsible for the murder of those U.S. citizens?

Obviously the mob was the sword. They did the murdering. But could it be argued that Nakoula was the hand wielding that sword?

For years it's been an accepted truth that one must not yell, "fire" in a crowded movie theater. In a case that had nothing to do with theater, the Espionage Act of 1917, it was successfully argued that the abridgment of free speech was on occasion permissible when free speech presented a "clear and present danger." Shouting "fire" in a movie theater became the prime example of the exception to first amendment rights.

Yelling "fire" or more precisely, knowing to not yell fire would seem to be a simple function of common sense, but common sense is often as rare as Bhuddas in Afghanistan.

We live at a time when the power of words is growing exponentially. The unbounded growth of social media and the worldwide platform of the World Wide Web know few limits. Huge soap-boxes and masses of irrational people are a volatile combination.

With all due respect to my religious friends, religion is, by definition, irrational. Any institution, large or small, that places faith before fact and reason is an easy mark and subject to manipulation. Faith is key to all religion and therefore, easy prey to those with the will to incite and an eye for mischief. Some religions are more primed for abuse than others, and it can't be denied that the fringe of Moslem religions is especially and rabidly intolerant.

But again, are other world religions at least partially responsible for fueling Muslim zealotry?

These are questions that really have no answer. The truth shifts with the perspective of the viewer. These questions do make for good dinner conversation and great debates, but when people die, the debate becomes more horrifying and less interesting.

We are all children at the end of the day—dangerous children with adult tools at our disposal. So when a cyberbully drives a teen to suicide or a would-be filmmaker incites a mob to violence, and when there is direct cause and effect, should there be a gentle admonition or a punch in the nose in response to the provoker's provocation?

Societies, in general, and journalists, in particular, have a lot to consider, especially now that anyone with a computer and an Internet connection is now effectively a journalist.

We are all journalists, and we must strive to choose our words carefully.

The theater is very real, and the threat of fire can be just as dangerous as the real thing.

Kurt Niece writes about visual arts and social commentary. He is a freelance journalist and author from Lakewood, Ohio.


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