One of the most frustrating things about watching a story like the one surrounding The Innocence of Muslims unfold is knowing that there are a whole lot of people set to profit on the chaos. These puppet masters of public opinion know that in both the west and the Islamic world, most people will have knee-jerk reactions that are fueled primarily by hate and mistrust of the other.
Assaulting an embassy, burning flags and killing diplomats is not a reasonable response to grievances, although one has to admit that the Islamic world has plenty of those. Decades of strained relations and 10 years of the war on terror have tensions boiling over, but that doesn't begin to justify the attacks. Even with a ridiculous, insidious, culturally malicious film thrown in.
At the same time, pointing to the violence of the protests around the world and pretending- - or worse, believing -- that it proves your preconceived prejudices about Islamic societies is simplistic and self-serving.
When western lives and strategic interests are threatened anywhere in the world, democratic governments typically capitalize and use the chaos to pursue more aggressive and militaristic foreign policies. These policies are tougher to pursue in a democracy because the people naturally crave peace and prosperity. Thus, governments spend a lot of their time trying to trick us into being angry and scared. This is not new.
After 9/11, the most devastating attack on the United States since Pearl Harbour, the western world was fired up and ready to invade just about anyone. Much like Pearl Harbour saw a million fresh recruits enlist for payback on Japan, or the Gulf of Tonkin incident was used to justify escalation in Vietnam. That fateful terrorist attack opened many doors that would otherwise have been shut to the Bush administration.
When an American ambassador and three of his colleagues are murdered in the worst of the embassy assaults, why would that not be used the same way? It would be bad politics for them to not take advantage of the situation, particularly in a Libya fresh from a revolution and full of powerful people with questionable loyalties. If the goal is to eventually clean house in Libya and consolidate power for pro-western leaders there, there's no time like the present to start justifying it.
Naturally, it isn't only foreign policy being manipulated and shaped by people exploiting tragedy and hostility here in the west. Civil liberties, privacy, democratic freedoms and all that other good stuff always suffer in times of war. Especially prolonged ideologically-based wars with no clear conditions for victory; sound familiar?
The Cold War saw the unconstitutional reign of what is now known as McCarthyism; what will we call our era's domestic war on liberty? The war on terror gave us the Patriot Act and the National Defense Authorization Act in a single decade. There seems to be a collective will in the halls of government to chip away at once inalienable rights and freedoms these days, and very few people who notice it are comfortable with it.
It's disheartening to see how many people look at the anti-American protests sweeping the Muslim world and decide it proves that Muslim societies are inherently warlike and uncivilized. This must be willful blindness more often than true ignorance. In this day and age and with this unprecedented access to information, who can look at a situation so complicated and come up with a black and white explanation? Does anyone still really buy the "they hate our freedom" argument?
Some of the most disturbing commentary about western relations with Islamic world can be found in the user commentary sections of news outlets. The hate, misguided ideological zeal and outright propaganda put forth by some people is beyond unnerving. I like to hope that negativity is always overrepresented online, but sometimes I worry that it runs deeper in our collective culture than I admit.
That hatred feeds the anti-American interests around the world as much as exploitative economic and coercive foreign policies do. When films like The Innocence of Muslims are produced, and when public figures say confrontational and incendiary things about Islam, al-Qaeda's leadership wins the day. They need the hate and fear and mistrust as much as the weapons manufacturers and defence contractors do. It pays their bills, buys their bullets, and gives them a reason to exist.
Yes, freedom of speech is important. No, I don't think we can go about censoring everything that could be conceived of as offensive. Yet I can't get behind the idea of being offensive specifically to exacerbate tensions, provoke violence, and garner free publicity for ridiculous fundamentalist endeavours.
Disasters like The Innocence of Muslims shouldn't happen, but they will; with great freedom comes great responsibility. It's the nature of the game.
That doesn't mean we can afford to let those with a vested interest in keeping people scared, angry, and ready for war use these problems to aggrandize themselves and their special interests at the world's collective expense.
Those casting the shadows behind the curtain need to be made to change their playbook, and the only way to do that is to stop falling for the same play. Think twice before you react, and always keep the rustling curtain in mind.