Jumping the gun.

Photo: Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters

The Romney campaign did it, and so did I.

I’ve been blogging for eight months now, and I guess it was inevitable that at some point I’d respond too quickly to something and feel obliged to apologise. Not because I’m an influential opinion-shifter (obviously I’m as far from that as almost anyone can be), but just because if you’re going to publish your thoughts like this, there seems to be an inevitable duty to recant whenever there is good reason to.

And those reasons arrived yesterday, when the story I blogged about on Tuesday escalated from a minor NYT piece into front page news across the world. I could never have foreseen that the protests in Egypt would, literally, catch fire in this way. But calling the US Embassy cowardly was, retrospectively, callous and rash.

Let me be specific, though, about what I got wrong. It wasn’t the principle of feeling queasy when governments use their bully pulpits to publicly condemn certain speech-acts. I stand by that as a crucial rule of thumb in daily life. But ignorance of the nature of the sensitive situation made me miss the fact that, when lives are at stake, sometimes security concerns can licence a little leeway when engaging in crisis deflation. It would obviously have been absurd for the US government to step up and boldly embrace freedom of speech at this moment. That doesn’t mean they can flout the principle and lock the filmmakers up in an attempt to calm the Middle East. But it does mean that picking language carefully is far from the moral crime I made it out to be.

Amidst all the noise, I think Sullivan put it best:

Of course, sitting in my blogging chair on the Cape, I can demand as radical a defense of blasphemy and hate speech as Romney can. But I was not inside an embassy in a foreign country as mob violence was building outside and as the US government was being conflated entirely with a bigoted anti-Muslim fanatic. And practically speaking, the embassy was trying to calm a situation, not inflame it. And diplomacy in the real world, where American lives are at stake, can necessitate such frustrating but necessary nuances.

This is spot on. And whilst my sin in missing it is far from as great as Romney’s (firstly because I’m not supposed to be wise enough to potentially rule the Free World, but secondly because it’s pretty clear Mitt hardly had my motives in mind. I trust you’ll forgive the cynicism) – I’m nevertheless sorry for misplaced purism at a time when pragmatism was appropriate.

I can tell you what lay behind my misplaced instincts, though. It wasn’t just a failure to foresee the escalation. It was also a strong commitment to the belief that free speech should not come with ‘responsibilities’ attached, especially to not offend people of religious faith. I do not believe that a man is in any sense blameworthy if his words are taken by a madman as licence for him to run out of his house and riot. Speech does not compel people as if they were remote-controlled robots. Someone had to make the choice to respond so ridiculously to such a pathetic film. There’s not an ounce of rationality we can impute to that decision, and as such the ethical-causal chain begins and ends with the murderers.

The diplomatic statements released over the past two days tended to play down that truth. My mistake was to argue that diplomacy must always be about bold, explicit truth-telling. In insecure conditions, that’s clearly not the first duty of America’s embassies or Commander in Chief.

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