Pakistan gave everyone the day off today (September 21, 2012) so they could protest the sophomoric and bizarre film, “Innocence of Muslims”, released on YouTube and apparently produced in the United States, hoping to quell the gathering rage of its Muslim street by allowing it to peaceably vent its frustrations. Of course, the Muslim street had other ideas in mind. The demonstrations turned predictably violent, so far as throwing stones and overturning cars (and even a train freight car) and such could be considered violent, in this age of Predator drones and nuclear-tipped missiles, of the latter of which (corrected from previous post), Pakistan has a few.
The President and Secretary of State of the United States of America, arguably the two most powerful offices in the world, occupied at the moment by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, prepared a video which the US government paid to have broadcast in Pakistan, explaining that the American government does not condone or in any way support the views expressed in the film. They stopped short, though, of explaining that the reason they could not censor the film is because the US Constitution prohibits censuring speech just because some might consider it is offensive or blasphemous. In fact, the First Amendment specifically operates to protect offensive and/or blasphemous speech, otherwise the notion of free speech would resolve to only that speech which didn’t need protecting anyway.
But why didn’t they explain as much to the Pakistani people? In what amounted to a plea for clemency from the rioting mobs that they, and by extension the US government, had nothing to do with the film, the President and Secretary of State knew better than rest the defense of their failure to censure on the US Constitution because the actions of the US in the prosecution of its War on Terror have so completely disregarded the tenets of the Constitution that it is questionable that even a shred of its meaning remains. If Obama and Clinton had tried to claim that the Constitution prevents their censorship of the video, the Muslim hard-liners would have justifiably retorted that the Constitution did not prevent the extra-judicial killing of even US citizens, never mind violating the rights of a sovereign nation in order to assassinate a terrorist leader. If the Constitution permits one man to decide whether a US citizen lives or dies, without oversight or judicial process, then surely, they would claim, it allows one man to decide whether or not a pathetic little film specifically intended to stir Muslim hatred could be censured.
And they’d be right.
There is a lesson about American notions of exceptionalism here. If America truly were exceptional, it would abide the tenets of its organizing documents setting out the relationship between the government and governed, even when doing so were inconvenient, even in its cross-border relations. That it has allowed a trifling fear of extremist criminal activity to force abandonment of its principles means that it principles weren’t really principles after all, but just convenient myths it contrived to justify whatever nefarious conduct in which it wished to engage, which means that America is hardly exceptional or at all unique among the history of nations and empires.
There is also a much deeper lesson about morality embedded in this little imbroglio. Morality is ever and always situational and subjective. There is no such thing as a moral principle. The directed killings of US citizens by its government would seem morally abhorrent on its face, considering it has pledged through Constitutional protections to never do such a thing, but apparently for most US citizens it is not, at least not in the context in which the killings are carried out. But the moral calculus is drastically different for the targets and collateral damage of the attacks. Which is why a silly little slapdash of a movie like “Innocence of Muslims” is capable of stoking their rage. They are, and have already been, morally outraged for quite a while.