In 1941 and 1942, the Allies were losing hundreds of ships and millions of tons of cargo to German U-boats in the North Atlantic. With England at risk of starvation, the United States faced the real prospect of losing the war in Europe before even having a chance to fight it. The massive Allied mobilization of resources to fight the Nazi submarine threat included the civilian population, which was urged to keep secrets about troop movements and departure times secret. "Keep mum" and "loose lips sink ships" became the order of the day.
Now as angry crowds swarm U.S. embassies throughout North Africa and the Middle East, it is a different kind of talk that is putting American lives at risk. The slandering of a great global religion, one with over a billion adherents worldwide including millions of our family members, friends and neighbors here at home, is helping to jeopardize the nascent democratic movements of the Arab Spring. Eleven years after the carnage of Sept. 11, rolling back the threat from Al Qaeda and its offshoots still requires limiting the appeal and ability of extremists to recruit new members and find sympathizers in Muslim nations worldwide. As we learned once again this week, the disrespect, mockery and outright hate talk towards Islam by some in the United States is making that task much, much harder.
As both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton adamantly declared this week, there is no justification ever for the attacks and mob violence that claimed the lives of four Americans this week. But Americans don't just have free speech rights; they also have duties to their nation and each other. So when ideologues here produce and distribute a film clip denigrating Islam and its prophet, when they desecrate its holy book and holy places, and mock the practices and practitioners of the faith, they aren't just betraying the precious American value of religious freedom and tolerance. They are betraying their fellow Americans.
But you don't have to take Hillary Clinton's word for it that the video at the center of the recent unrest is "disgusting and reprehensible" with the "deeply cynical purpose to denigrate a great religion and provoke rage." You can instead, as conservatives are so fond of demanding, listen to the generals.
Take, for example, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey. As USA Today reported, General Dempsey personally called Florida Pastor and provocateur Terry Jones to request that he withdraw his support of an anti-Islam online film that may have triggered riots in Egypt and Libya:
"The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, spoke by phone this morning with Pastor Terry Jones. 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. He asked Mr. Jones to consider withdrawing his support for the film."This isn't the first time the top brass has worried that incendiary rhetoric and inflammatory actions would literally get Americans killed. As the Wall Street Journal documented in an April 2011 story titled "Petraeus Says Quran Burning Endangers War Effort," the U.S. Commander in Afghanistan David Petraeus called Jones' plans to burn copies of the Koran "hateful, extremely disrespectful and enormously intolerant." Petraeus not only met with Afghan President Karzai in private to calm the situation, but declared in public:
"Every security force leader's worst nightmare is being confronted by essentially a mob, if you will, especially one that can be influenced by individuals that want to incite violence, who want to try to hijack passions, in this case, perhaps understandable passions. Obviously it's an additional serious security challenge in a country that faces considerable security challenges."And when it came to the considerable security challenges faced by the United States in its struggle against Al Qaeda, there was one point where Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were in absolute agreement. "The United States is not, and never will be," President Obama told the Turkish parliament in April 2009, "at war with Islam." If that sounds familiar, it should. After all, President Bush made the same proclamation repeatedly, beginning in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
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"Islam is peace," President Bush announced on Sept. 17, 2001, declaring three days later that "the war against terrorism is not a war against Muslims, nor is it a war against Arabs. It's a war against evil people who conduct crimes against innocent people." During a visit by King Abdullah of Jordan on Sept. 28, 2001, Bush explained:
"I have assured His Majesty that our war is against evil, not against Islam. There are thousands of Muslims who proudly call themselves Americans, and they know what I know -- that the Muslim faith is based upon peace and love and compassion."A year later, Bush had a message for audiences in the United States and around the world. "Some of the comments that have been uttered about Islam do not reflect the sentiments of my government or the sentiments of most Americans." And that's why President Bush apologized to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki in May 2008 over revelations that an American soldier had used a Koran for target practice. Ironically, it was Bush press secretary turned Fox News regular Dana Perino who explained the president's apology to the world:
"He apologized for that in the sense that he said that we take it very seriously. We are concerned about the reaction. We wanted them to know that the president knew that this was wrong."Perino added, "He told the prime minister that we take this matter seriously, and he noted that the soldier had been reprimanded and removed from Iraq by his commanders." As for his commanders, they made their own representations of apology and a plea for forgiveness:
Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, the commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, met with tribal leaders in Radwaniyah on Sunday to apologize while another American officer kissed a copy of the Quran before presenting it to the chiefs.The contrast between the military fighting the war and the likes of CNN contributor Dana Loesch cheering it on could not be greater. After video surfaced of U.S. Marines urinating on a dead Taliban fighter, Loesch came to their defense and boasted, "I'd drop trou and do it too."
But the strategic imperative of sensitivity and respect to Muslims abroad must be matched with Americans' support for the nation's tradition of religious liberty at home. When mosques are blocked, vandalized or torched in places like Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and Joplin, Missouri, the United States hasn't just failed a test in the eyes of the world. Americans have failed to live up to their own highest standards.
Consider the imbroglio over the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" in lower Manhattan. Rush Limbaugh and Pamela Geller, Fox News hosts and tea party members, and the Republicans best and not-so brightest mobilized to denounced the supposed "victory mosque." Mitt Romney, who persists in his myth-making that President Obama "apologizes" for American values abroad, refused to defend them at home. As spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom explained two years ago:
"Governor Romney opposes the construction of the mosque at Ground Zero. The wishes of the families of the deceased and the potential for extremists to use the mosque for global recruiting and propaganda compel rejection of this site."Fittingly, George W. Bush's former speechwriters came to President Obama's defense. Mark McKinnon lamented, "Usually Republicans are forthright in defending the Constitution. And here we are, reinforcing al Qaeda's message that we're at war with Muslims ... Those who want a president to assert that any mosque would defile the neighborhood near Ground Zero are asking him to undermine the war on terrorism." Axis of Evil creator David Frum came to the support of "the thousands of Muslims who work in lower Manhattan, every single one of whom is as entitled to pray as any member of Marble Presbyterian or Temple Emanu-el." Michael Gerson, certainly no friend of Barack Obama, could only reply in astonishment to right-wing pundits and politicians:
But the view from the Oval Office differs from the view from a keyboard. A president does not merely have opinions; he has duties to the Constitution and to the citizens he serves -- including millions of Muslim citizens. His primary concern is not the sifting of sensitivities but the protection of the American people and the vindication of their rights.Nevertheless, as chaos envelops the fledgling and fragile democracies in the Middle East, here are home many Republicans and their conservative amen corner will continue to pour gasoline on the fire. This weekend, the Family Research Council is holding its 2012 Values Voter Summit. Paul Ryan will address the attendees, who will doubtless hear lectures about the danger of Sharia law as FRC President Tony Perkins and Vice President Jerry Boykin declare "Islam is evil" and "my God was bigger than his." Many of the same people who decry a supposed "War on Christians" (including at events with names like the "War on Christians Conference") will be joined by the likes of Frank Gaffney, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Rep. Steve (R-IA), all warning of penetration of the United States government by the Muslim Brotherhood. And while Mitt Romney has belatedly denounced the film now stoking the fires in Muslim capitals, he refused to join John McCain in rejecting Bachmann's smears of dedicated Muslim public servants here in the United States:
By this standard, Obama had no choice but the general path he took. No president, of any party or ideology, could tell millions of Americans that their sacred building desecrates American holy ground. This would understandably be taken as a presidential assault on the deepest beliefs of his fellow citizens. It would be an unprecedented act of sectarianism, alienating an entire faith tradition from the American experiment. If a church or synagogue can be built on a commercial street in Lower Manhattan, declaring a mosque off-limits would officially equate Islam with violence and terrorism. No president would consider making such a statement. And those commentators who urge the president to do so fundamentally misunderstand the presidency itself.
"I'm not going to tell other people what things to talk about. Those are not things that are part of my campaign."Unfortunately, "those things" are part of being the president of the United States. But instead of disowning the right-wing rage machine that spews (and even celebrates) Islamophobic hate, candidate Romney like Glenn Beck warns that Sunni and Shia, friend and foe, seek to "unite the world under a single jihadist caliphate." It's awfully tough to win over hearts and minds when you're giving people the finger. To put it in terms even the always execrable Ari Fleischer could understand:
"There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that. There never is."Despite his GOP nominee's shocking political opportunism this week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) joined Republican leaders in circling the wagons around Mitt Romney. As he put it, the president's "lack of lack of leadership is about to lead to an explosion in the Middle East." But last year—that is, before the 2012 presidential election season—Graham focused instead on the senseless and dangerous bigotry of the Koran burners who then as now needlessly stoked the fires. As he told CBS' Face the Nation in April 2011, we need to "push back" on those who put American lives at risk through their inflammatory words and deeds:
"I wish we could find some way to -- to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we're in a war. During World War II you had limits on what you could say if it would inspire the enemy."Of course, America should not—and must not—turn to censorship. To trample on the right of free speech--even when it is the right to say hateful, odious things--would be a grave threat to the American liberties and values our military and diplomatic corps are defending in our name. But the right to say something awful shouldn't be confused with the wisdom of saying it. Now, the loose lips of the haters, the bigots, the ideologues and the opportunists don't merely threaten to sink American foreign policy. That lack of sensitivity, decency and just plain common sense may get more Americans killed.
UPDATE: Judging from the comments, it seems the diary wasn’t sufficiently clear in making its point. In the hope of adding some clarity, perhaps my comment below provides a better nutshell summary.