YouTube Terrorism

An American ambassador is killed in the line of duty for the first time in 33 years. Three others perish with him. An American consulate is destroyed. At the same time, an American flag is torched, while another diplomatic post, an embassy, is stormed in a neighboring Arab Muslim country. Days later, further outbursts against American officials and diplomatic sites occur in two other Arab Muslim countries.

The headlines are here stripped of their local names, not to protect the innocent but to show the pattern of a creeping violence that has precedence and yet, at another level, is unprecedented. 

What makes the current saga surreal is the seamless manner in which a hackneyed 14-month-old movie becomes the flashpoint for violence against American officialdom in the Arab Muslim world, and that it came both on the anniversary of 9/11 and during an intense presidential election season.

The two issues at stake are opposite: 1) Freedom of speech, which includes the freedom to poach on the fine line between public critique and satire (allowed), and defamation or hate speech (not allowed); and 2) Protection of US interests, including and especially diplomatic posts and personnel serving the US government abroad in a variety of other conflict settings.

Much will be made of the murky elements on both sides: On the one hand, who made this low-budget, scurrilous, and artistically deficient movie? (See Sarah Posner’s excellent detective work on that question); and on the other, who initiated the attack on American outposts in Cairo, Benghazi, and perhaps also Sanaa?

Whoever “Sam Bacile” turns out to be (most likely Coptic ex-patriot Nakoula Basseley Nakoula), he said one thing correctly: “This film was not about religion but about politics.” Whoever made, then distributed the “trailer” for Innocence of Muslims was trying to score points against Muslims, though perhaps they didn’t intend to provoke the violent outburst that has wrought such destruction at hypersensitive urban nodes in the rapidly changing Arab Muslim world. What seems more and more likely is that the video itself was simply the pretext for a pre-planned attack, likely by al-Qaeda operatives or sympathizers. But that still raises the question: how did a B movie get rendered into Arabic, then used to justify an attack on American sites overseas?

The two principles—freedom of speech and protection of American diplomats—become entangled when the internet makes possible not just the distribution but the reemergence of visual production (a movie, a clip, a trailer) at a delicate moment; in this case, the anniversary of 9/11. Beyond all the issues that have been discussed, debated, and fine-tuned since the 9/11/12 tragedy in Benghazi, one central point has been missed, and it needs to be made again and again and again: expect the unexpected, look for the unrelated to be connected, then projected for the interest of dissident groups savvy about the nature of the modern world and, above all, media ‘neutrality.’

There are no topics so hateful or obscene that they’re debarred from the Internet. They travel virally in a world that welcomes them but cannot monitor either their content or their impact. What al-Qaeda did today, other ill-wishers or polemicists or terrorists can, and will likely, do tomorrow.

This is the greatest, and sobering, lesson of the death and destruction that came out of the 9/11/12 debacle. Alas, it is a part of our brave new world of endless information and mindless usage of that information. Gertrude Himmelfarb once observed: “Like postmodernism, the Internet does not distinguish between the true and the false, the important and the trivial, the enduring and the ephemeral.”

Had she added “between the sanitized and the incendiary” her words would have predicted what we saw in Benghazi but, alas, will see loss of life and property in other places during the still young but perilous 21st century. It is a century, our century, that belongs neither to the USA nor to China, neither to imperialists nor terrorists, but to the CyberKingdom and to those who grasp the endless good and evil wrought by the Information Age.

bruce.bbl@gmail.com'

Bruce B. Lawrence is Emeritus professor of Religion at Duke University, founding director of the Duke Islamic Studies Center, and a member of the Duke Islamic Studies Center's Advisory Board.