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Deadly politics

Foreign Policy | It's a new season, and reality has overtaken rhetoric

Issue: "Reassessing the genome," Oct. 6, 2012

Summer can turn to autumn in one blink. The wind rustles a few dry leaves, the Canadian geese give a plaintive call from their V formation overhead, and suddenly you know: Another season has passed.

So too political seasons. One week extremism is what some call Mitt Romney's position on immigration. Turn a corner and the next week it's a maddened crowd setting fire to a respected U.S. diplomat in Benghazi.

For a moment Democrats tried to focus on Paul Ryan as an "economic extremist" possessed of "severely conservative views," then suddenly they are confronted not with a Lincoln-lanky econ major who's lived his whole life on the same street in Wisconsin, but with extremists who mean to own the name. These come bearing RPGs and assault rifles.

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Americans had barely time to recover from the rhetorical heat wave coming out of Charlotte and to a lesser degree Tampa before reality mugged the rhetoric. (As Politico noted, "Obama and his top campaign aides have engaged far more frequently in character attacks and personal insults than the Romney campaign.") If you have eyes to see and ears to hear, you now have a better idea than when the convention stages went dark what an "extremist" really is. Under the August heat, Daily Kos hit man Markos Moulitsas called Romney "a horrible person that no god could possibly ever like." But in September we saw more clearly what truly horrible persons do.

The problem with the overheated talk of this campaign: You can only wage total war over the lesser battles for so long without becoming tone deaf to the real meaning of crisis. Senseless to the real scent of an extremist. Hunting bogeymen in all the wrong places means you won't see a lethal assault until it shows up at your doorstep, literally.

By mid-September a real crisis had shown up at more than 20 U.S. doorsteps, as rioting and threats of assault against U.S. embassies and other installations spread from Egypt to Libya, to Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and others. Yet faced with violence and threats of violence against Americans serving abroad, the Obama administration took a position as familiar now as it is bizarre—holding itself aloof from responsibility and engagement by blaming lesser suspects and avoiding the truth. And in so doing, disregarding constitutional parameters.

First, the White House asked Google to review whether the offending video "is in compliance with their terms of use." But the company had already announced it was and so would stay on YouTube (though it did remove Innocence of Muslims for web users in Egypt and Libya). Plainly the White House wanted to censor it.

Then federal probation officers on Sept. 15 summoned for questioning Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the filmmaker. Some news sources reported that Nakoula was arrested, which was untrue. But questions over possible violations of his parole from 2010 bank fraud charges had plain timing. While the film itself can't be defended—it's both artless and tasteless—it's hard to imagine a 10-year-old taking it seriously, let alone the FBI and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

The Obama administration, by focusing on the film, played into the hands of those who want to create a zone of censorship around free speech (look at recent efforts by the Organization of Islamic Conference, UN bodies, and others to enact global rules against blasphemy). In the United States we call this "the heckler's veto"—that all someone has to do to weaken free speech is to threaten a riot or a bomb attack to provoke states to restrict that speech for the sake of public safety.

Hisham Melhem, bureau chief for Al Arabiya news channel in Washington, said, "I hate to see an American official every time an idiot in the United States uses a camera or tells me he wants to burn a copy of the Quran, that this becomes an international issue. ... The issue is not Islam … it's raw power."

Evidence in Libya suggests Islamic militant groups are as much or more behind the violence as a 14-minute video clip most in the region have not seen-making it all the more disturbing that U.S. officials would put on the block speech freedoms they enjoyed in the glare of summer conventions.


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