The news of the assault on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, by armed militants, which destroyed the building and killed the US ambassador and three others, hit close to home for me. I was fairly close to joining the Foreign Service at one point, and my thoughts were along the lines of "There but for the grace..."
The militants exploited the opportunity of protests by Islamists against the Internet release of a trailer for a low-budget film called "The Innocence of Muslims" by an anti-Muslim (apparently an Egyptian Coptic Christian--the Coptics have had recent strife with Islamists there). It appears to be a thoroughly disgusting film, for which the actors have reported that all the dialogue they had filmed had been dubbed out and replaced with inflammatory language added by the filmmaker. Apparently the film suggests the prophet Muhammad was a homosexual, a child molester, some other stuff--thoroughly scurrilous.
The first protests had been in Cairo, Egypt, with the ones in Benghazi soon afterward (since then, there was another dangerous protest in Yemen, and other protests elsewhere). The besieged embassy in Cairo released a statement aimed at calming the riotous crowd apologizing for any offense and disassociating the US from the film.
Mitt Romney wasted no time at all in politicizing the affair, releasing a statement in the middle of the night in response to the Cairo release, to the effect that the Obama Administration was appeasing Islamic radicals. Romney's clumsy attack missed the mark and violated rules of responsibile US Presidential politics, which require serious candidates to avoid bringing active national security issues into political debate. He has been heavily criticized by a variety of folks, including most of the press and even some Republicans. Some have said this was a tipping point for his candidacy, which is slipping rapidly away from any status as a credible challenge to Obama.
I would disagree in a couple of regards. First, his clumsiness, ignorance, and inadequacy to deal with delicate diplomatic issues is already well established, so this is nothing new. I am not one who supports suppression of all partisan political discussion of foreign affairs, especially for Presidential candidates, though Romney's take on the incident was deficient. His challenge is slipping, but it's not because of this: I don't think most Americans will even take note of this brouhaha.
The Real Issues
Putting the campaign considerations on the side, I think there are two legitimate topics for discussion raised by these incidents.
The first is the status of those countries in the Middle East which have had their governments disrupted or overthrown by the Arab Spring. The fact that the worst incidents occurred in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, all countries whose leadership has been forced out by upheavals in the past two years, is no coincidence at all. The militants' attack on Benghazi was coordinated and heavily armed; it shows every sign of being conducted by al-Qaeda, or some similar extremist group. The weakness of the central governments and the tenuous state of security in these countries has provided an opening for extremists to operate.
We can (and do) demand better security for our embassies from the host countries, but really it falls to us to provide adequate security--which clearly was not present in Benghazi. Al-Qaeda wouldn't try something like this in Baghdad: We have enough troops stationed at our embassy to counterattack and destroy the attackers, while the instigators in Benghazi apparently ceased their assault when US reinforcements showed up and blended back into the (chaotic) scenery.
There is also legitimate ground to debate, or criticize, the US role in the overthrow of the Egyptian and Libyan governments; to argue against the result, though, is implicitly to prefer the previous rule of the tyrants Mubarak and Qadhafi--something that few would suggest. Still, one could argue that, having contributed to the current instability, we should be doing more to prevent the infiltration into these countries of armed extremists. Libya, in particular, remains overly well-armed in the aftermath of a civil war, and its fragile (but generally friendly) government needs our support.
The second point for discussion is whether the US really wants to provide safe haven for blasphemers, something we have clearly done in this case. This guy who made the film would never dare do it in Egypt; he's taking advantage of our safety and the uncensored media here to produce inflammatory, foul filth. OK, we have plenty of obscenity produced legally here all the time, and that's a different question, but we must consider whether we want to be the source of more stuff like this.
The answer, I think, is that we do have to say (after Voltaire) to our citizens who would do this sort of thing--"We disapprove this 'art', but we will defend to the death your right to produce it." If the producer of this particular piece of garbage is here on some sort of visa, though, he should be deported back to Egypt, where he will receive his due. If our laws don't provide for any distinction between citizens' free expression and that of those whose visits we are tolerating, then they should. (There is clearly a difference between this thing and the work of, say, Salman Rushdie, who was also condemned as a blasphemer in some parts, and whom we have also hosted some of the time. We need to find a way to make the distinction, as it pertains to cultural refugees.) And, we should recognize there will be more "blasphemy" coming out of our fertile culture, and we should expect and plan for more strong reactions. With increased, armed American military defending our embassies and consulates in vulnerable locations.