Yesterday, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff phoned the fundamentalist pastor who stoked outrage in 2010 by publicizing his plan to burn Korans. Via Reuters:
General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with Pastor Terry Jones by phone on Wednesday and asked him to withdraw his support for a film whose portrayal of the Prophet Mohammad has sparked violent protests – including one that ended with the death of America’s envoy to Libya. “In the brief call, Gen. Dempsey expressed his concerns over the nature of the film, the tensions it will inflame and the violence it will cause,” Dempsey’s spokesman, Colonel Dave Lapan, told Reuters. “He asked Mr. Jones to consider withdrawing his support for the film.” U.S. military officials are concerned that the film could inflame tensions in Afghanistan, where 74,000 U.S. troops are fighting. The Taliban earlier on Wednesday called on Afghans to prepare for a fight against Americans and urged insurgents to “take revenge” on U.S. soldiers over the film.
It’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around the inanity of the top military officer of the United States genuflecting in an official capacity to a screwball pastor in Florida. Mario Loyola cuts to the chase in National Review:
Nobody in the U.S. government, least of all the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acting in his official capacity, should be calling Terry Jones or any other American citizen about the Mohammed spoof. Not only does that elevate Jones to some sort of semi-official status, but spoofs of deities are entirely within our rights and absolutely no business of the government’s.
Yes. While there are very real practical implications to radicals using offensive movies and publicity stunts to stoke anti-US outrage, there are two fundamental problems with Dempsey’s response. First, it’s vaguely chilling for a US military leader to try to influence the public speech of a private citizen, no matter the security concerns that motivate the impulse. Second, giving random pastors or filmmakers the credibility implied by a phone call from a top official followed by a press release creates incentives for attention-seekers and scam artists to engage in the very behavior that Dempsey is trying to mitigate.
There may be little that the US military or government can do to stop Islamist radicals from seizing on aspects of our free society to generate violence, but trying to influence the speech of private citizens in this century’s media environment is futile and counterproductive. It lends credence to the unrest, empowers those who author offensive speech, and blurs the lines surrounding the intended roles of the military and government in a free society.
Sooner or later, the portions of the Muslim world that take violent offense at aspects of Western speech will need to absorb the concept of free speech and grasp the distinction that private entities do not represent America, the West, or associated governments. More individuals will undoubtedly die, and this cultural lesson may never penetrate the consciousness of Salafists and others who view religion as irrevocably indistinguishable from government, speech, culture, and thought itself. But it’s far better for the American government and military to prepare to reinforce and defend these Western values than to clumsily and selectively attempt to ‘manage’ them.