Libya’s violence and human rights

by Mary Pappalardo, Writing Intern

On September 11, 2012, Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and three other diplomats were killed by an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The persistent media attention is valuable, even though, and perhaps because, the facts are still unclear and the ramifications are being felt each day. Before adding to that dialogue, though, we would be remiss to lose sight of the basic fact that four men died, and regardless of the politics or ideologies now surrounding the situation, this is a fundamentally human tragedy.

The incident is being investigated and President Obama, speaking on the morning of September 12, said, “[The United States] will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.” In the days following the attack, there have been theories that the attacks were premeditated. Supporters of this theory cite the symbolism of the attack’s coinciding with the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

Even Mohammed Magarief, who has been the leader of Libya since August 2012, insists that the attacks were “planned…by people who entered the country a few months ago, and they were planning this criminal attack since their arrival.”

While the truth has not been discovered, the accepted narrative at the moment is not one of premeditation, but rather one of reaction. In the days before the attack, the trailer for an anti-Muslim film called The Innocence of Muslim appeared on YouTube. The film was only screened once and to a small crowd but the trailer was widely seen. The 14-minute video portrays Mohammed, the most important prophet in the Islamic faith, and this depiction is the first offense, as depictions of Mohammed are against Islamic belief.

On top of this, the depictions are extremely negative. The trailer begins with a brutal attack perpetrated by Muslims, and later, Mohammed is portrayed as violent, a womanizer, and endorses the sexual abuse of children. It is no surprise that the trailer (which within a few days had been seen by hundreds of thousands) stirred up anger and resentment, given that the film’s purpose seems to be inflammatory. Protests sprang up in Libya and Egypt, and one of those protests reportedly led to the attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador.

Since the attack, anti-American protests have taken place throughout the Middle East, and in a region that has seen its share of political unrest, as illustrated by 2011’s Arab Spring, the climate has grown even more tense. Political dialogue in the United States has turned to foreign policy, but while the diplomatic response might be murky, there should be a clear way of seeing the situation as world citizens.

To begin with, the film that is being blamed as the catalyst for the attacks is a blatant defamatory work. Regardless of personal beliefs, we need to understand that different people practice different faiths. In his address, President Obama said, “[The United States] rejects all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.” Indeed, freedom of religion is one of the fundamental rights on which this country has been built, and any attempt to disparage another faith is a direct threat to that right.

That being said, if we were to attempt to silence any individual or group that criticized another religion, regardless of how offensive their criticism, we would be directly threatening yet another one of our most valued freedoms: the freedom of speech. This tenet of our Constitution does not merely protect those who are saying things we want to hear, but rather it protects the sanctity of all speech. Even though their product may be vitriolic and hateful, the makers of The Innocence of Muslims have as much a right to their speech as anyone else.

Furthermore, to respond to this kind of display with physical violence, especially against those who are in no way responsible for its production, whose only association with the filmmakers is their nationality, is a transgression of the most intrinsic of human rights.

In this difficult situation, the problems we face are readily apparent. While the right to free speech is a special freedom that we hold dear, it is our hope that speech as vile as what can be seen in this video does not exist. To exploit this freedom to spread malicious depictions of others and to create even larger divides between people than already exist is to commit a grievous wrong. It can take just one word to put in motion a cycle of injustices whose end we have not seen.