Hillary Clinton said some things that needed to be said Thursday, and reiterated the essence of the unfairly bashed statement out of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo — the one retracted after Mitt Romney mischaracterized it as an apology.
She did not apologize, either, of course, as we mourn the four Americans we lost to hate in Benghazi. On the contrary, she stood up for who we are in denouncing the violence that killed former Navy SEALs Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty, diplomat Sean Smith, and J. Christopher Stevens, the former Peace Corps volunteer who was our ambassador to Libya.
But the secretary of state also stood up for American values in describing as “disgusting and reprehensible” the inflammatory YouTube video that set off at least some of the rioting across the Muslim world. That even speaking up for free speech and religious tolerance might be made to seem controversial is quite a tribute to the power of political
“The U.S. government has absolutely nothing to do with this video,’’ Clinton said on Thursday. “We absolutely reject its content and message.” Why was that so important to spell out?
An NPR reporter in Benghazi told listeners she spent all day Wednesday at the U.S. Consulate — there is no security anymore, she said, so crowds of people came and went as they pleased — and she heard two things over and over from Libyans. First: “Why did the United States allow this movie to be made?” And second: expressions of disapproval for the violence; there were other, more appropriate ways, they said, to register criticism of what they assumed to be an anti-Muslim movie officially sanctioned by the American government.
Since Libyans have not lived in freedom, it’s not so surprising they’d be more likely to see anything out of our country as a sanctioned communication than believe it could have been the work of a sketchy felon who sometimes goes by the alias “P.J. Tobacco’’ and had to dupe actors to get the thing made.
The idea that we should have let that misapprehension stand makes no sense, and Clinton was all kinds of right to at least attempt to set the
record straight on Thursday:
“Now I know it is hard for some people to understand why the United States cannot or does not just prevent these kinds of reprehensible videos from ever seeing the light of day,’’ she said. For one thing, she went on to say, that’s a technical impossibility in the digital age. But “even if it were possible, our country does have a long tradition of free expression, which is enshrined in our Constitution and our law. And we do not stop individual citizens from expressing their views, no matter how distasteful they may be.”
“America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation, and as you know, we are home to people of all religions,’’ Clinton said, Muslims included. “To us — to me, personally,’’ she said, “this video is disgusting and reprehensible. It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose, to denigrate a great religion and provoke rage.”
Amen, right? And at its heart, not so different from this less elegantly and strongly worded effort: “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. . . . Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.”
My colleague Glenn Kessler, a.k.a. the Fact Checker, who previously covered the State Department for The Post, has written that similar statements have been issued by our embassies at least as far back as the tenure of Karen Hughes as undersecretary of state for public affairs in George W. Bush’s second term. “After Newsweek erroneously reported that U.S. interrogators had tried to rattle an al-Qaeda suspect by flushing a Koran down a toilet,” he wrote, “Hughes pushed for a much more proactive communications effort in an effort to get ahead of such
Romney’s statement construing the embassy statement as evidence that our president actually sympathizes with those who attacked us wasn’t made in the heat of the moment but was crafted by advisers and approved by the candidate.
In political terms, maybe Team Romney is even right that there is something to be gained in insisting that “it’s never too early for the United States government to condemn attacks on Americans’’ — apparently, even before those attacks occur, which is when the embassy statement came out.
It might work anyway because it reinforces the already popular narrative that Obama is weak — just as Al Gore misquotes endured long after being corrected because they propped up the story line that he was an exaggerator, and that time W. tried to exit through the wrong door after a news conference was bigger news than it should have been because it fed into the view that he was kind of a goof.
I admit, the statement that Romney saw as an apology wasn’t the cleanest or most forceful — in fact, at first I assumed it hadn’t been written by a native English speaker.
But its intent was to support the very religious freedom that so many conservatives sincerely fear the president is trying to take away; without religious tolerance, there is no religious liberty.
The “Christian activist” Steve Klein, who was involved in the making of the anti-Muslim video, reportedly has a history of protesting outside abortion clinics, mosques and, oh, Mormon temples, too.
At a campaign event in Fairfax on Thursday, Romney made only a glancing reference to the attack in Libya: “I would offer a moment of silence,’’ he said, “but one gentleman’’ — there was a heckler down front, though I couldn’t hear him over shouts of “USA!” — “doesn’t want to be silent.”
Without reading too much into that, I see no better way to cheer the USA than to speak out for religious tolerance. The only weakness we showed was in retracting a statement we should all be proud of.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s ‘She the People’ blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.