After the September 11 terror attacks in 2001, members of the American left found one thing they could all agree on: Our First Amendment rights were in peril.
The American Prospect insisted on September 12 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 New York Times under the headline “Patriotism Calls Out the Censor.” Conferences were rapidly convened, vows to fight the crackdown on free speech were issued.
The fact that this response was elicited by no actual crackdown on free speech seemed irrelevant.
Later, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, goaded by the press to respond to a bigoted comment from a Republican congressman and a typically stupid comment from “comedian” Bill Maher, said such statements are “reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.”
Then-New York Times columnist Frank Rich spent much of the next five years treating this comment as the end of liberty in America. He even said Fleischer’s comment was as significant as the terror attack itself.
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. 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. Four Americans, including our ambassador, were murdered in a coordinated terrorist assault in Libya. White House officials said they believed it wasn’t a terrorist attack but a spontaneous reaction to a video insulting the Muslim prophet Muhammad. There is a debate as to whether they knew all along that was untrue. There is no real debate that officials learned very early that it was untrue and continued to lie about it — or at least wildly exaggerate the role the video played.
Secretary of state Hillary Clinton vowed to the grieving families of the victims that she would get the makers of the video, not the murderers themselves. The White House asked Google whether it could censor the video from YouTube. Google partially complied, blocking it in Libya and Egypt. (Later, a U.S. appeals court ordered the film removed entirely.)
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.