15 September 2012

Those Words Don’t Mean What Governor Romney Thinks They Mean

On Tuesday the US Embassy in Egypt issued this statement:

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
Mitt Romney personally approved a campaign release condemning that embassy statement as:
  • a “first response” to events that actually occurred later.
  • coming from the White House, which was not involved.
  • an apology, or “akin to an apology,” as he claimed the next day.
As many observers noted, the embassy’s message is in no way an apology. It contains no form of the word “apologize,” nor phrases like “very sorry” and “sincere regret” that we should expect in an apology.

Rather, that statement condemns an obvious attempt to offend all the adherents of a very large religion. It should be no surprise that diplomats, of all people, would condemn deliberate offensiveness.

And so did Romney, speaking two days later on TV:
I think it’s dispiriting sometimes to see some of the awful things people say. And the idea of using something that some people consider sacred and then parading that out a negative way is simply inappropriate and wrong. And I wish people wouldn’t do it. Of course, we have a First Amendment. And under the First Amendment, people are allowed to do what they feel they want to do. They have the right to do that, but it’s not right to do things that are of the nature of what was done by, apparently this film. . . .

I think the whole film is a terrible idea. I think him making it, promoting it showing it is disrespectful to people of other faiths. I don’t think that should happen. I think people should have the common courtesy and judgment—the good judgment—not to be—not to offend other peoples’ faiths. It’s a very bad thing, I think, this guy’s doing.
That was no more and no less of an “apology” than the words Romney had complained about two days before.

I nevertheless see a notable difference between the statements. The State Department referred to “the universal right of free speech.” Romney instead said, “we have a First Amendment.” The First Amendment limits the US government and, under later court decisions, state and local governments in the USA. It offers no guarantees to people in other countries, as Romney’s “we” implies.

In contrast, the US Embassy’s statement expressed belief in a universal right, not limited by national jurisdictions and constitutions. If someone truly believed in natural rights, whether endowed by God or deserved simply by virtue of being human, then the First Amendment should be an afterthought. It’s one nation’s important and early expression of a broader freedom that people deserve everywhere. But does Romney truly think that way?

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