Neil Macdonald: A mighty nation, frightened by an angry mob

Mob violence has the White House on the defensive. The president of the United States has been reduced to using the most powerful bully pulpit in the nation to criticize a clownish little sacrilegious internet video.

Generally, the term "hard power" — as opposed to its "soft" diplomatic equivalent — evokes images of American warships flinging Tomahawk missiles out into the night, usually to convince some tyrant or regime to change its ways.

What's happening right now throughout the Muslim world, though, is exactly the opposite. The thugs are throwing the bombs, and the mightiest nation on Earth is trying to placate them.

Mob violence has the White House on the defensive. The president of the United States is now publicly repudiating, and trying to suppress, an anti-Islamic propaganda effort the U.S. government had nothing to do with in the first place.

"I have made it clear that the United States has a profound respect for people of all faiths," said President Obama almost plaintively in his weekly radio address Saturday. "We stand for religious freedom. And we reject the denigration of any religion — including Islam." 

A president, reduced to using the most powerful bully pulpit in the nation to criticize a clownish little sacrilegious internet video.

There are also reports that the White House has contacted Google, the parent company of YouTube, and asked that it consider removing from public view Innocence of Muslims, which has been used as the pretext for anti-American rioting and protests in dozens of countries, from Mauritania, on the west coast of Africa, to Indonesia.

It is certainly one of the most severe tests of freedom of expression America has ever faced. And America's leadership, rather than pushing back at its attackers, is instead blaming the speech that gave insult.

Where blasphemy is legal

Most of those rioting do not understand, or care about, the concept of free speech. That is evident in the widespread demands — including one from the Islamist president of Egypt — that America make the offending video disappear, and punish its authors.

Such calls are understandable, given that in many parts of the world, and not just Islamic nations, governments simply stamp out speech, and imprison, or just do away with the offending author.

The American government, though, is shackled by its own basic law.

Protesters take part in a demonstration condemning a U.S.-made film which they say insults the Prophet Mohammad, near the U.S. embassy in Cairo. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

Blasphemy is perfectly legal here. As are expressions of bigotry, hatred, and treasonous thought. It is even permissible here to urge the extinction of a racial or religious group.

There are a few exceptions. Heaven help you if you mention the word "bomb" in an airport, and of course conspiracy to commit a crime is in itself a crime, as is incitement of violence against an identifiable individual. There are also libel and slander laws, although they are weaker than anywhere else in the Western world.

But even where official secrets are concerned, the government intervenes only when the person discussing them is bound by a secrecy oath.

Simply put, speech is freer and more protected here than anywhere else in the world, even countries that see themselves as fellow free-speech democracies.

Canada has federal and provincial human rights commissions that will investigate individuals suspected of bigoted speech, and the Quebec government has used the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian constitution to restrict languages other than French on commercial signs.

In Germany, it is illegal to display Nazi iconography. France has a law forbidding the veils used by Muslim women to hide their faces. Israel has since its establishment had emergency laws in place giving the government wide censorship powers. The British government can use prior legal restraint to quash news reports it deems offences to national security.

All of these laws would shatter on the immovable rock of the American constitution.

'Hate' versus 'protected' speech

As for those in Canada who are wondering whether the anti-Muslim video used as a pretext for the rioting and murder abroad might not be banned as "hate speech," the answer is that hate speech does not exist in America, at least not as a legal concept. Here, "hate speech" is called "protected speech."

Americans tend to believe the best tool for fighting offensive speech is more speech.

A U.S. flag is seen at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after the building was attacked and set on fire by gunmen on Sept. 12. Four American diplomats were killed in the violence. (Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters)

That said, there is realpolitik. Protecting speech like Innocence of Muslims has consequences.

The administration's repeated avowals of respect for Islam have had little effect.

Hatred of Americans is intensifying. Clearly, Americans abroad are at much greater risk than they were two weeks ago, especially diplomats. Mobs in foreign capitals are chanting "Obama, Obama, we are all Osama."

And while Google has blocked access to Innocence of Muslims in a handful of Islamic countries, it has refused to block it anywhere else, in spite of White House entreaties.

So, rather than trying to explain one of its bedrock, founding principles, the American government is sounding instead as though it sympathizes with those who would censor and punish blasphemy.

Listening to Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on morning talk shows Sunday, it was easy to come away with the impression that all the responsibility for the violence and death lies with the creators of the buffoonish video, and not the flag-burning, fire-setting crowds, or the men who showed up at the U.S. mission in Benghazi with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and proceeded, using military tactics, to kill four American diplomats.

A ridiculous comparison

"This was not a preplanned, premeditated attack," Rice told Fox News Channel, contradicting members of Congress who have received security briefings.

Rather, she said, "it was a spontaneous reaction" to what she repeatedly denounced as "a very hateful, very offensive video that has offended many people around the world."

"Obviously," she told another interviewer, "our view is that there is absolutely no excuse for violence, and what has happened is condemnable. But this is a spontaneous reaction to a video and it's not dissimilar, but perhaps on a slightly larger scale, than what we've seen in the past."

She then went to another level altogether, comparing the video, a trashy production of some radical Christian cranks in California, to The Satanic Verses, a widely acclaimed novel that earned its author, Salman Rushdie, a death sentence in absentia from Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

It's a ridiculous comparison. One is garbage, the other is an enduring piece of literature.

But they do have two things in common. Both are forms of speech. And religious demagogues have used both to incite murder.

It is a measure of demagoguery's power that the administration would feel intimidated enough to make such a comparison.

President Obama is often accused by Republicans of "apologizing for America." That's unfair. But he is allowing America to be bullied by zealots.