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Our Views: Freedom under fire
Protests in Middle East open our eyes to what world is like without free expression
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

Sometimes, the timing of events is the perfect way to illustrate a lesson worth learning.

In this case, we observe Constitution Week beginning Monday, following a week of worldwide protests that sparked a discussion over the U.S. Constitution’s most cherished right.

That would be the one found in the First Amendment and published each day at the top of this page. No passage in the document means more, or is more widely debated, than the notion that free people may share their ideas openly without fear of government retribution. Without those 45 words, the rest of the document is all but meaningless.

For more than two centuries, we have taken this right for granted as the cornerstone of what we believe. And yet we still have to defend it to the world at large, and even among ourselves.

Last week, we saw protests in the Middle East over a film clip posted on the Internet that was considered insulting to the Prophet Muhammad. The video was at first believed to have touched off violence that began in Libya, where armed protesters shot and killed the U.S. ambassador and three other embassy staff members.

We since have learned that this likely was a planned terrorist attack less motivated by the film than first believed. Yet anger over the video is likely a factor in other violent protests in Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Iran and elsewhere, crowds smashing windows with rocks, burning flags and shouting “death to America.”

Can we even wrap our heads around this? They hate us, and wish us death, not because of anything we’ve done or said as a people, nation or government. No U.S. official has a connection to this film. Yet in the minds of these agitators, we all deserve to burn in hell merely because we allowed it to exist.

This clearly and profoundly displays the gulf between our world and theirs. In short, they detest us because of our freedom.

Perhaps we just didn’t get it before. We were led to think they resisted us because of our support of Israel, our quest for their oil or our support of oppressive regimes in the region, many of which have been toppled. Those reasons we could understand, to a point, even if we didn’t agree. But to think a government should restrict the free exchange of ideas because some might find them offensive is just not on our radar.

Of course, most in the Middle East have never known such freedoms, their daily lives controlled by dictators and despots who poisoned their minds against such Western-born tenets. In their countries, a blasphemer could be hauled into the streets and shot without a trial. Cartoonists and authors have been killed or remain under death threats. Their zealotry knows no limits, the dogma of their faith the only constitution they acknowledge.

This is why we may never understand them, and vice versa.

Yet some in our own country also have criticized the filmmaker for posting his work, rather than stand up for his rights. Some spent more effort condemning the video than denouncing those who rain violence in the streets. We should be more “responsible,” they say, and avoid offending anyone, lest it stir unrest. Their desire for calm trumps the need to defend liberty.

It’s worth noting some believed the Dixie Chicks were done wrong a few years ago when they criticized the president overseas, only to have radio stations stop playing their songs.

Others have claimed similarly that their “First Amendment rights” were infringed upon when their ideas were opposed. Evidently, the First Amendment matters to some people only when they agree with the views being expressed.

It doesn’t work that way. Free speech might bother us at times, but so be it. It’s why pornography remains legal, why our government doesn’t ban books. And it’s why that new phrase frequently unholstered by the politically correct — “hate speech” — needs to be defined as narrowly as possible to avoid applying it to anything deemed unpleasant.

The First Amendment only prevents government from interfering with our free exchange of ideas. “Congress shall make no law” remain the five sweetest words in the Constitution. It does not promise you will not be offended, protect you from the consequences of free speech, nor guarantee anyone will listen to what you say. If words or images are found offensive, we can change the channel, leave the website or put down the book.

As we watch Middle Eastern Muslims march through the streets in opposition to the very concept we hold most dear, we wonder if we can ever reconcile our differences and live in peace. It’s hard to justify years of nation-building in a part of the world where so many can’t grasp the basic doctrine of individual liberty.

But it reminds us how precious that freedom is, one we should celebrate fully. Free expression was America’s greatest gift to the civilized world, and has been written into laws on every continent. But for some, that gift remains unwrapped and unwanted, as foreign an idea to them as their rejection of it is to us.

It is, sadly, their loss.