Is America Now Afraid of the First Amendment?

Preview of the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment

Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski says the United States should reconsider whether satire should be protected free speech in light of the terrorist attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

“We have to take a look more closely at the nature of the so-called satire,” Brzezinski, who served under former president Jimmy Carter, said while appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Friday.

“I’ve not seen what I’m about to say, but I’ve been told by some people that some of the cartoons were absolutely appalling and directed at the prophet himself. Now, is that really humor or is that an insult designed to provoke?” he asked.

Unbelievable. This man was once largely responsible for the national security of the nation. And he now believes, quite literally, in censorship? And in so doing he implicitly supports the actions of the individuals who terrorized the offices and murdered the staff of a private newspaper.

Notice the standard by which he justifies censorship: “Appalling.” “Insulting.” Are these objective standards or emotional reactions? Which government official will determine what qualifies as insulting and appalling? Since when did emotional reactions — which vary in rationality and from one person to the next — become the standard of determining what may or may not be published or stated? How on earth does this square with the First Amendment?

Whose prophets and messiahs are to be protected by this “right” to censorship, this supposed right to be free from criticism? And which ones will not make the cut? If a case goes to the Supreme Court, will justices be expected to go on their own gut feelings, predispositions and biases — or will the standard be obvious?

Some news outlets, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, have said they don’t plan to publish the cartoons that were what allegedly prompted the attack on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters on Wednesday by Muslim extremists.

However, Jeffrey Goldberg, national correspondent for The Atlantic, responded to Brzezinski, explaining that “in the First Amendment . . . the goal is not to protect inoffensive speech. We have free speech to protect what many people would call offensive speech.”

“Our goal in the West is to allow people to say what they want even if it’s offensive and painful — that’s the principle. That’s a sacred ideal of France. It’s a sacred ideal of the U.S.,” Goldberg added.

This is too obvious to have to say. And it’s appalling that anyone has to say it, particularly in response to the words of a former high-level national security official.

Yet Brzezinski undoubtedly knows this. The point is: He doesn’t care. He doesn’t care to distinguish between the criminal actions of murderers and what he considers perhaps the equally criminal actions of “insulting” someone, or at least insulting someone else’s prophet … at least when that prophet is Muslim.

Contrast all this with the words of comedian/political commentator Bill Maher:

I’m asking them [fellow liberals/Democrats] to turn toward the truth as I have been for quite a while. I’m the liberal in this debate. I’m for free speech. To be a liberal, you have to stand up for liberal principles. It’s not my fault that the part of the world that is most against liberal principles is the Muslim part of the world.

I know most Muslim people would not have carried out an attack like this, but here’s the important point. Hundreds of millions of them support an attack like this, they applaud an attack like this. What they say is, we don’t approve of violence, but you know what, when you make fun of the prophet, all bets are off.

They chop heads off in the square in Mecca. Well, Mecca is their Vatican City. If they were chopping the heads off of Catholic gay people, wouldn’t there be a bigger outcry among liberals? I’d ask you.

Maher called on liberals in the U.S. to unequivocally condemn the attacks and the supposed motivations of the attackers. [reported by 1-9-15 and]

In this context, Maher is using the term “liberal” in its proper sense. The proper meaning of “liberal” is to leave others alone. Politically, this concept originally meant a limited government, with its hands off of everything (economic and personal) except for the obvious cases of criminal fraud or violence.

Maher is not a classical liberal or “libertarian” by this definition. But he’s attempting to utilize this standard when characterizing the Muslim opposition to liberty. Religious fanatics for Islam, he implies, are the ultimate “religious right wing.” Yet most liberals, by the current definition, don’t seem to agree. Jimmy Carter’s former national security advisor is overtly calling for censorship against criticism or mockery of Muslims. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry might privately agree. They certainly soft pedal — at best — their opposition to Islamic terrorism, and constantly try to separate the terrorist acts from the ideology in whose name those acts are constantly and consistently done. Why? They don’t want to offend, even if it means evading the obvious.

Americans tend to think of the First Amendment as their ultimate and final protector against the censorship employed in most other societies throughout history, and throughout much of the world even today. But what good is a First Amendment when the mainstream of our leaders — Maher is definitely an exception, especially for a Democrat — actually pave the way for censorship to take hold any time?

The beginning of censorship is not an act of legislation or an executive order. Those will come later, and last, at least in America. The beginning of censorship is the idea that, “If you offend me or make fun of me, that’s equivalent to action against me.”

Are we ready to let the government decide what constitutes vulgar and offensive? And are we prepared to let these things become illegal — at least when it offends a politically correct group, such as militant Muslims?

Terrorists can smell fear. They can read it by our unwillingness to hold them responsible for their actions, and — because they’re terrorists, not reasonable people — they will only act with greater destruction going forward. Our leaders are timid and contradictory. Brzezinski, now long-since retired, is free to say what many of them probably already believe.

The New York Times and The Washington Post won’t publish these cartoons, because — like our political leaders — they’re afraid of offending. They don’t wish to be seen as anti-Muslim, and they don’t wish to be held responsible for “inflaming” more anger. Implicitly, such a view concedes that the terrorists themselves (along with their ideology) are not responsible for their anger. People who criticize or mock their faith are.

No cartoon or mockery can “make” someone violent. This is what Brzezinski and others like him evade. They don’t have to murder in retaliation. They can simply ignore it, like the vast majority of reasonable people when they’re criticized, condemned or verbally attacked.

In certain respects, the terrorists have already won. We still have a First Amendment. But so what? We’re too timid to use it, at least when the going gets tough.

Evil people can kills thousands or even millions. However, they cannot break the human spirit. We can only do that to ourselves — by default, by incrementally giving away our right to speak, think, joke — even mock — as we please. The government doesn’t exist to protect favorites from being offended. Government exists to protect us from the people who blow up others who offend them.



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