If you want to understand the full disgrace of the Obama administration’s response to the September 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya, here’s the question to ask: What if the video had been any good?
Forget, for a moment, the fog of recollections and rationales, the unheeded cables and security assessments, the back and forth buck-passing among the White House, State Department and C.I.A. Forget the congressional investigation into who-knew-what-when. What matters is that in their public statements about the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on American soil, high-ranking members of the administration saw fit to denounce a cheesy Internet video called “Innocence of Muslims.”
“This is not an expression of hostility in the broadest sense towards the United States or to U.S. policy,” declared Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on Fox News. “It’s proximately a reaction to this video, and it’s a hateful video — that had nothing to do with the United States — which we find disgusting and reprehensible.”
Rice’s distaste was echoed by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney: “This is a fairly volatile situation, and it is in response not to United States policy, obviously not to the administration, not to the American people. It is in response to a video, a film, that we have judged to be reprehensible and disgusting.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also gave the video an emphatic thumbs-down prior to meeting with Moroccan officials: “Let me state very clearly, and I hope it is obvious, that the United States government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message. … To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible. It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose — to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage.”
Finally, President Obama himself weighed in on the video in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 25: “[The perennial clash between narrow-minded orthodoxy and dissent] is what we saw play out in the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity. It is an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well.”
To be sure, Rice, Carney, Clinton and the president were quick to add pro forma disclaimers that no video, no matter how appalling, ever justifies violence. But the crucial point is that they took the trouble to condemn the thing in the first place. What difference does it make whether terrorists are provoked by an insult, or a perceived insult, or by an interpretation of a sacred text, or by a shift in the North African wind? They’re terrorists. That’s the issue — the entire issue. We don’t need to feel their pain. We need to put them in body bags. The only sympathy we should be expressing is for collateral damage.
Suppose, for a moment, “Innocence of Muslims” had been a serious work of art. Suppose Nakoula Basseley Nakoula — also known as Sam Bacile — an amateur filmmaker with a shady past, had produced and directed a thoughtful masterpiece that also happened to offend many people’s religious sensibilities. It’s not as though that sort of thing never happens. Martin Scorsese, arguably the finest director of his generation, made “The Last Temptation of Christ” — a 1988 film that many Christians found deeply offensive. Would it have made an iota of difference to the terrorists if “Innocence of Muslims” had been directed by Scorsese rather than Sam Bacile?
The true scandal here — and it’s an unforgivable scandal — is that U.S. government officials indulged in gratuitous art criticism in an effort to appease the hurt feelings of Muslims. Why go down that road? Well, this film insults Muhammad, and it’s got bad acting and sloppy camera work, so we’re against it, but that one has top-notch production values, so we’ll stand by its anti-Islam message as a legitimate expression of artistic freedom. Even if “Innocence of Muslims” had provoked the Benghazi attack — which we now know it did not — the video wouldn’t be the problem. It should never have entered into the discussion. The problem isn’t the object; it’s the response. Which is just another way of saying, either you buy into the Enlightenment, or you don’t. Either your actions are restrained by reason and tolerance, or they’re not. Americans want to know when the war against Islamic totalitarianism will end. Here’s the answer: When Muslims everywhere have learned to take an insult like everyone else.
The president, however, seems to believe that Muslims are a special case, that they have to be coddled and consoled, that they have to be reassured that the U.S. government is properly offended on their behalf … because, you know, they just don’t get things. As Obama told the U.N., “I know it is hard for some people around the world to understand why the United States doesn’t just completely shut down this video.”
Hmm, if that’s hard for “some people” to understand, imagine how confused they must have been by footage of Nakoula flanked by cops as he was perp-walked on suspicion of violating his probation on unrelated bank fraud charges. Think that might have looked like he was being arrested for making “Innocence of Muslims”?
The Obama administration’s spineless, sniveling, Siskel-and-Ebert response to the terrorist attack in Benghazi was its most shameful moment — worse than any of its policy blunders — because they threw the Enlightenment itself under the bus. It was the most shameful moment by any administration since Richard Nixon boarded that helicopter on August 9, 1974. If it costs Obama re-election, justice will have been served, and he will have no one to blame but himself.
Mark Goldblatt is the author of “Bumper Sticker Liberalism.” He teaches at Fashion Institute of Technology (SUNY).