Murderous Mobs, Freedom of Speech, and the United Nations
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by Chip Krakoff on April 13, 2011

Following the mob attacks ten days ago on the United Nations compound in the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-e-Sharif in which seven people were killed, the U.N.’s chief representative in Afghanistan, Staffan de  Mistura, spoke at a press conference in which he blamed the entire incident on Terry Jones, the Florida pastor whose burning of the Koran sparked the outrage that led to the killings.

According to Mr. de Mistura, the burning of the Koran was an “insane and totally deprecable gesture by one person.” On that, I think, we can all agree. Mr. de Mistura then went on to say, “I don’t think we should blaming any Afghan for the news, we should blaming the person who has produced the news, in other words the one who burnt the Koran…Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of offending culture, religion, traditions.”

This is an astonishing statement. Possibly, under the shock of the incident and his grief for the deaths of his colleagues and subordinates, Mr. de Mistura misspoke, but this is unlikely. As a seasoned diplomat who during his 36-year UN career has occupied a number of very senior and highly visible positions in conflict-affected countries, he probably said exactly what he meant to say. Diplomats often have to say things they know are not true, but absolving the people who killed the UN workers of any responsibility is a step too far.

Although U.N. Afghan officials claimed the murders were committed by a small band of militants who hijacked an otherwise peaceful demonstration, The Wall Street Journal reported that a mob of thousands of people stormed the UN compound following Friday prayers. They encountered no resistance, since the Nepalese Gurkha guards, four of whom were killed by the mob, were under orders not to fire on their attackers, while the Afghan police outside the compound stood aside to let the intruders in.

Mobs, once they form and fire themselves up, are capable of the most terrible atrocities, but we should ask ourselves how and why the actions of a lunatic American preacher led directly to the murder of a Norwegian, a Romanian, a Swede, and four Nepalis. According to some observers, since the United States has no visible presence in the city the United Nations was attacked as a sort of proxy. But more to the point, even if the attackers had managed to find a more recognizably American installation, why should they have engaged in any kind of violence? Terry Jones, the Koran-burning pastor, may be a vile nincompoop, but when asked about the violence he said something that actually made sense. In America, he said, if my neighbor offends me, I don’t barge into his house and kill him and his wife and children. That rule clearly doesn’t apply in Afghanistan.

What’s more, not only were the victims of the attack not the ones who committed the act that provoked their killers’ rage, they were not connected to that act in any conceivable way. For the UN representative in Afghanistan to have exonerated all Afghans from any responsibility for the killings is both deeply illogical and morally reprehensible. Afghanistan, remember, is a country in which the penalty for apostasy and blasphemy is death, and whose courts recently passed the death sentence on a Muslim who converted to Christianity.

Mr. de Mistura’s statement that freedom of speech does not mean freedom to offend religions, culture, and traditions, is equally illogical and reprehensible. If freedom of speech does not include precisely those freedoms, then it is not freedom of speech at all, and it gives license to restrict or abolish freedom of speech to anyone who can claim to have been offended. Unfortunately, he is not alone in his belief. Many prominent Americans, including General David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Senators Harry Reid, John Kerry and Lindsay Graham, though some mentioned in passing that killing people was an inappropriate response, focused their attention on what Petraeus referred to as the “hateful, extremely disrespectful and enormously intolerant” act committed by Pastor Jones and his parishioners. President Obama said desecration of the Koran “is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry.” But to his credit, he also said that it does not justify attacking and killing innocent people, calling it “outrageous and an affront to human decency and dignity.”

I don’t really subscribe to the notion of “teachable moments,” but if ever there were such an occasion, this would be it. Not to call for Congressional hearings into Terry Jones’s shameful antics, as Senators Kerry and Reid suggested, but to question whether Afghanistan, a society whose values are so directly opposed to ours, is worth defending at the cost of so many American lives and dollars. And to question our commitment to the United Nations, whose senior officials have shown themselves and the organization they represent to be completely devoid of any sort of moral compass.

Posted 05-02-2011 11:23 AM by Charles Krakoff