Whatever Happened to Free-Speech Panic? (Photo: Carnie Lewis)
by Jonah Goldberg
After the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, members of the American left found one thing they could all agree on: America's Our First Amendment rights were in peril.
The American Prospect insisted on Sept. 12, when the rubble was still burning and the dead had not yet been retrieved, that "a number of government agencies and their cheerleaders would be clearly tempted to lock the Bill of Rights away in some basement dustbin of the National Archives." Two weeks later, novelist Barbara Kingsolver warned, "Patriotism threatens free speech with death." She bravely attacked the claim that "free speech is un-American." Author Richard Reeves penned an op-ed for The
The fact that this response was elicited by no actual crackdown on free speech seemed irrelevant. It was a classic example of "Fire, ready, aim!"
Later, when there was at least some theoretical basis to be concerned about lost liberties, the reaction from prominent liberals was nonetheless unhinged.
I will admit I was vexed by this riot of knee-jerkery. At the time, I largely agreed with then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, who said: "To those ... who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists."
But in retrospect, I have a bit more sympathy with those self-anointed defenders of free speech. It was, in its way, a thoroughly American, even patriotic reaction. Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, remarked -- in 1775! -- that the proto-Americans of the colonies had a tendency to nip attacks on liberty in the bud. "In other countries the people ... judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance," but in the American colonies, "they anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze."
Fast-forward to another September 11. Failing to anticipate a terrorist attack on the anniversary of 9/11, four Americans, including our ambassador, were murdered in a pre-planned and coordinated terrorist assault in Libya.
President Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, hammered the video story. Clinton vowed to the grieving families of the victims that she would get the makers of the video, not the murderers themselves. The
Our embassy in Egypt was widely seen to apologize for the video in a statement to protestors there. The administration bought television ads on Pakistani TV apologizing for the video and disassociating the U.S. from it. Obama spoke to the U.N. about the video, explaining that we can't ban such things because of our Constitution. Still, the director was arrested. A picture of him being hauled off in handcuffs was splashed in newspapers around the world.
All this fueled an earnest debate about the downside of free speech in America. Cable news networks, op-ed pages and public radio lit up with "expert" commentary about how we must find ways to accommodate the sensibilities of Muslims who don't understand or care about free speech. And much of the crowd that once set about to "snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze" when George W. Bush was president said nary a word.
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Whatever Happened to Free-Speech Panic?