The Fort Hood Massacre as the Price of Free Speech

At what point, and to what degree, will Americans be willing to impinge upon their freedom of speech if they believe that lives are at stake? That question bubbles to the surface again today as more becomes known about Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged shooter in the Fort Hood massacre, who apparently was angry about the United States’ prosecution of the War on Terror.

According to wire reports, Hasan’s family was connected with a Virginia mosque that at one time hosted the preaching of radical imam Anwar al Awlaki, and where two of the September 11th hijackers worshiped.  Writing from Yemen, the imam, author of the controversial “44 Ways to Support Jihad,” praised Hasan’s actions and condemned Muslims critical of the attack as “hypocrites.” Awlaki has been often accused of intentionally inciting English-speaking Muslims to violence against the Western World.

This is where the whole “freedom of speech” thing gets somewhat sticky. If it can be demonstrated that Awlaki’s words led to Hasan’s actions, do we still consider those words protected speech? Remember, the element of religious freedom exists to even further complicate the matter. If preaching hatred from the pulpit causes others to deem it God’s will, or perhaps just acceptable, to harm others, should that speech be banned?

Be careful. Before you reflexively answer “yes,” consider the implications. If this ban were enacted, could radical anti-abortion groups be targeted for “hate speech?” How about Rush Limbaugh? Still on board? What about a President who openly condemns insurance interests for their opposition to health care reform? What would seem like an overreaction is only so until there’s an incident involving a desperate man whose child has been denied coverage for what he considers a life-saving treatment. If that were to occur, the culpability of public figures under the new law would immediately come into question, and no doubt countless lawsuits would be filed by the aggrieved.

This is the problem we run into as Americans who profess to defend freedom above all else. If we choose to allow speech that amounts to public attacks upon individuals and organizations, attacks that are intended to arouse individuals to action (as all political attacks are), attacks that we now consider as a normal part of the political process, we must also allow the speech of hate-spewing imams in Virginia.

Of course, there are limits which have been consistently applied over the years, such as removing from that protection speech which can be construed to have the deliberate, intentional purpose to cause harm to another individual or to deprive that individual of their rights under the law. However, in this case, that doesn’t seem to be what was going on in Virginia.

In the coming days, there will be plenty of calls for a rethinking of what’s being preached in America. There may also be condemnations of the patriotism of certain Muslims in America. While it may be easy to point out that inciting people to hate is wrong, it is a far more difficult task to regulate it. I suspect that after the dead of Fort Hood are buried, and the final notes of taps drift away in the autumn breeze, we will discover the price of that regulation to be too steep, and in the end, a poor tribute to those who were, in the end, martyrs of a society based upon free speech.

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Why We failed In Iraq (from the collected works)

(This opinion piece appeared in the Retriever Weekly on April 19, 2007.)

Previously, I mentioned that the United States made a mistake in invading Iraq. Not because they failed to find any “weapons of mass destruction”, which I believe Saddam had the smarts to get into neighboring Syria long before the first American humvee rolled across the border.

No, the sin the U.S. committed in Iraq was in assuming that they were bringing with them something better for the Iraqi people. It’s easy to understand why Americans might have felt this way. After all, Hussein was a brutal tyrant who oppressed most of his population, and was responsible for a bushel basket of “crimes against humanity” during his reign as dictator.

Even so, we were wrong in thinking that we had something better.

This idea that the American style of government is the greatest in the world, and that it’s only a matter of time before all people bask in its warming rays, goes way back to the heady days after the American Revolution.

In 1789, with the American experiment still in its infancy, the French Revolution unleashed forces that not only overthrew a monarchy, but also resulted in mass executions in a virtual police state. Yet despite this, many of our founding fathers rejoiced at the news. People like Thomas Jefferson applauded the French people and downplayed their excesses – all because he believed they were emulating the American experience in republican democracy.

Our history is replete with American attempts to export our representative form of government to other nations, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much. As the targets for Americanization shrink, they tend to become less and less industrialized – places like Iraq.

The truth is that some peoples, in their present state of development, are not yet ready for a parliamentary life. Religious and sectarian rivalries, tribal ties and ethnic hatreds run too deep in some countries, and only a strong-arm dictator can keep the lid on the boiling pot. It may not be pretty to watch, and it certainly goes against all of our republican instincts, but sometimes, tyranny is better.

Such a case was the old Yugoslavia, led by Marshal Josip Tito from 1943 to 1980. Tito’s Yugoslavia was technically a Communist state; however, Tito remained independent of Stalin and the U.S.S.R. The important thing to note was that Tito’s dictatorial rule kept the Serbs and the Croats from killing each other for four decades. Shortly after he died, Communism fell; Yugoslavia became a republic and then disintegrated into the nations we see today. Ethnic “cleansing”, mass murders and genocide followed shortly thereafter. Remember Slobodan Milošević? The lid was off the pot.

In Iraq, Saddam was another run-of-the-mill dictator, a strong man who had his political enemies killed early on and then ruled with terror and violence. Nevertheless, it worked. Iraq was stable. There were no competing Sunni and Shi’a militia trying to kill everyone in the country as fast as they could. Then, in April 2003, we got rid of Hussein.

Since that time, it is thought that hundreds of thousand of Iraqis have died in sectarian violence. Now Uncle Sam struggles desperately to keep the lid on the pot. If we ever pull out, the lid will be off the pot, with cataclysmic results. A formerly stable nation in the Middle East is now the focal point of regional instability, and threatens to become the first battleground of the next world war.

The lesson that should have been learned by now is that representative democracy is not the appropriate form of government for every country, and that, for some nations, a brutal tyrant may be the lesser of many evils. In Iraq, we rid the world of a brutal, evil regime, this is true. However, for the Iraqi people, the brutal, evil regime may have been the lesser of a great many evils, and now, four years post-Saddam, they and we will have to live with those evils for many years to come.