If you knew your actions might lead to the kind of upheaval that occurred last week across the Mideast, would you go forth with your efforts? If so, how much might you be responsible for the deaths of four Americans in diplomatic service, including the posthumously praised Christopher Stevens, a Grass Valley native?
As its murky origins unfold, it appears the colossally amateurish, now notorious video blaspheming the Islamic faith triggered last week's outrage. Was this the goal of those behind the video's creation, and does such intention violate the limits of free speech?
Our own courts have ruled that free speech does have limits. The First Amendment doesn't protect defamation, child pornography, speech expressing a genuine threat to the safety of others, or statements likely to provoke violence.
Do those restrictions apply in an interconnected global environment where a video of some fool burning a Quran in his living room can ignite religiously driven firestorms among a billion Muslims, further destabilize an already volatile region, create threats to national security and cause the loss of American life?
What if this was the provocateur's intention?
McClatchy reporters have learned that the crude video sat in YouTube obscurity for months until Morris Sadek, a Coptic Christian living in suburban Washington, D.C., telephoned an Egyptian newspaper reporter on Sept. 4 with an "exclusive." He emailed the video link. The reporter, insulted, was reluctant to write about it but eventually scripted a three-paragraph article, calling the video "shocking."
Picked up by Islamic Web forums and other newspapers, it soon landed in the lap of Khalid Abdullah, the premier commentator for a popular conservative television station, a rabble-rouser of the first order and a galvanizing figure for the region's angry young men ever searching for reasons to protest. Abdullah gave them one on Sept. 9 when he aired the most egregious portions of the video, after which, a firebrand co-host insisted of the filmmakers, "An apology is not enough. I want them convicted."
Within hours, a YouTube page few had seen received more than 1.2 million hits. Protests began the next day in Cairo and in Libya the day after. You know the rest. It's a scene repeatedly replayed since 1979 Iran: enraged young men partaking in all manner of protest, often not even knowing what they're protesting, but always blaming the West.
Even an oblivious amateur knows it takes little to stir that pot. Surely Sadek, whose anti-Islam campaigning led to the revocation of his Egyptian citizenship this year, knows better what buttons to push. So too, perhaps, do his cohorts, Sam Bacile, aka Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the film's apparent director, and another Southern Californian, Steve Klein, a virulent anti-Islamist and self-identified "consultant" to the film, tasked with promoting it domestically.
An elephant in this room is ethnocentric hubris. Though we routinely rail against our own nanny-state government, Americans struggle to understand why other cultures don't adopt our way of life. Muslims believe depictions of their prophet are an extreme offense against their rights and can't understand why Westerners don't respect this religious principle. Each hubristically frames the other's culture through its own values.
Between our passion for free speech and their passion for religious worship, where is the line crossed, and who is crossing it? Insisting they do things "our way" is unrealistic. Who gets to say whose nationalism is better for whom? Or do we not respect freedom enough to accept the difference?
The Internet's global reach not only makes this clash between two different realities more frequent; it no longer requires the agencies of government to coordinate them. Triggering an incident is as simple as a mouse click, with the proverbial horse out the barn door before slow-witted governments can react.
Knowing what little provocation it takes to trigger uprisings in the Mideast, how morally responsible is it for random Americans to purposely cattle-prod a people whose reaction is almost certainly going to be angry, violent and, as we've seen, murderous? Are they legally responsible?
It might be a valuable exercise for American scholars and justices to debate whether the video and its backers violated the limits on free speech our courts have imposed. Many Americans would bristle at such a suggestion, but in a rapidly changing world, old paradigms under which we once operated are buckling in ways we never expected.
We don't just live in America anymore; we live on an increasingly interconnected planet. Taking offense to that daunting reality rather than taking interest might do more to weaken our global status than strengthen it, perhaps even prompt the demise of the great American experiment rather than maintain it. If we choose to be too cavalier or too offended, do we do so at our own peril?