Libya attack becomes a US campaign issue


Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses the crowd at the 134th National Guard Association Convention at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center, September 11, 2012 in Reno, Nevada.


David Calvert

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — No issue, it seems, is too big, too small, or too delicate to serve as fodder for this increasingly ugly presidential campaign.

The violent protests and killings of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other embassy staff in Libya were shocking and unjustifiable. That was clearly stated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while President Barack Obama called the attacks “outrageous.”

But this was not enough to satisfy Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who issued a statement blasting, not the attacks themselves, but the administration’s response: “It is disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks,” said Romney.

It is unclear where the charge of “sympathy” came in. A statement issued by the Cairo Embassy following protests in Egypt, but before the events in Libya, did slam the ostensible trigger for the attacks — a film that insults the Prophet Muhammad.

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions,” read the statement.

The White House backed away from the Cairo release, telling media that it had not cleared the message.

But in his own statement, the president echoed some of these same sentiments:

“While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants.”

This statement had the blogosphere humming with outrage and the Romney campaign, as seen above, in high dudgeon.

More from GlobalPost: Twitter reacts to embassy and consulate attacks

The Obama campaign, for its part, struck back at what it saw as an opportunistic assault by the Republicans.

"We are shocked that, at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Gov. Romney would choose to launch a political attack," Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said late Tuesday.

Romney’s statements are fully in line with one of the main messages of his campaign, promulgated in his book, “No Apology”: being American means never having to say you’re sorry.

No one, certainly not within the Obama administration, is trying to excuse the attacks. Equating the statements made by the president and the secretary of state with “sympathy with those who waged the attacks” requires a fairly shameless shuffling of facts.

But can no one spare a harsh word for those whose actions sparked the violence?

Sam Bacile, the Israeli-American filmmaker whose offensive and amateurish work served as the fuse in the powder keg, knew well what he was doing.

Releasing a clip depicting Muhammad as a more than slightly idiotic womanizer who condoned child molestation and actively promoted extortion and murder is more than just offensive to Muslims worldwide. It is the equivalent of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

Bacile’s supporters justify his “art” on First Amendment grounds — but the line between hate speech and free speech is a fine one.

The “filmmaker” has gone into hiding — unfortunately, the American officials in Benghazi did not have that luxury.

Another active promoter of the film is Pastor Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center, who almost caused an international outrage two years ago when he threatened to burn a mountain of Qurans in Florida.

Jones, who sells T-shirts with that say “Islam is of the devil,” is also calling for an end to the Obama presidency. In a YouTube video, Jones stands by a gravestone on which “OBAMA presidency DEAD” are spelled out in large letters. He says the Obama experiment has failed, and demands a “deadening blow” to be dealt to the Obama presidency in 2012. In another clip he shows Obama hanging in effigy and says that the president “is killing America.”

Is this freedom of speech? Or incitement to violence?

I was in Kabul in 2005 and 2006 when cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper began a wave of protests that resulted in dozens dead worldwide.

Embassies in Kabul were attacked, property burned. The once gracious neighborhood of Wazir Akbar Khan, where the cream of the international community had their residences and offices, sprouted ugly metal walls that blocked off entire streets.

At receptions and parties with Norwegian and Danish diplomats in those days, the talk was all about the protests. Scandinavians are just as supportive of freedom of speech as the most ardent First Amendment champions; but I know for a fact that several high-ranking Scandinavian diplomats were furious when a Norwegian newspaper in Oslo chose to reprint the cartoons in January 2006.

Why? Because their necks were on the line. It is much easier to insist on absolute freedom to offend others when you are not in the middle of an angry and lawless mob.

The protesters who scaled the walls of the US Embassy in Cairo, and who attacked the Consulate in Benghazi, are the undisputed villains of this tale. Ambassador Chris Stevens and the three other embassy staff are the victims.

But Sam Bacile and Terry Jones are not the heroes.

Nor are our presidential candidates, who are using this horrible tragedy in an undignified mudslinging fest.