Why Punishing Blasphemous Speech That Triggers Murderous Reactions Would Likely Lead to More Deaths

In recent days, I’ve heard various people calling for punishing the maker of Innocence of Muslims, and more broadly for suppressing such speech. During the Terry Jones planned Koran-burning controversy, I heard similar calls. Such expression leads to the deaths of people, including Americans. It worsens our relations with important foreign countries. It’s intended to stir up trouble. And it’s hardly high art, or thoughtful political arguments. It’s not like it’s Satanic Verses, or even South Park or Life of Brian. Why not shut it down, and punish those who engage in it (of course, while keeping Satanic Verses and the like protected)?

I think there are many reasons to resist such calls, but in this post I want to focus on one: I think such suppression would likely lead to more riots and more deaths, not less. Here’s why.

Behavior that gets rewarded, gets repeated. (Relatedly, “once you have paid him the Dane-geld, you never get rid of the Dane.”) Say that the murders in Libya lead us to pass a law banning some kinds of speech that Muslims find offensive or blasphemous, or reinterpreting our First Amendment rules to make it possible to punish such speech under some existing law.

What then will extremist Muslims see? They killed several Americans (maybe itself a plus from their view). In exchange, they’ve gotten America to submit to their will. And on top of that, they’ve gotten back at blasphemers, and deter future blasphemy. A triple victory.

Would this (a) satisfy them that now America is trying to prevent blasphemy, so there’s no reason to kill over the next offensive incident, or (b) make them want more such victories? My money would be on (b).

And this is especially so since there’ll be plenty of other excuses for such killings in the future. It’s not like Muslim extremists have a clearly defined, unvarying, and limited range of speech they are willing to kill over (e.g., desecrating Korans and nothing but). Past history has already proved that; consider the bombings and murders triggered by the publication of the Satanic Verses.

What’s more, there are lots of people in the Muslim world who are happy to stoke hostility. (Neither the recent riots nor the Mohammed cartoon riots were simply spontaneous reactions to what was done in America or Europe; they came about after people in the Middle East took steps to encourage anger on the part of their fellow Middle Easterners.) Even if something doesn’t outrage lots of people at first, some will be happy to try to explain to them why they should indeed be outraged.

So imagine what would likely happen the next time someone writes a book like the Satanic Verses, or makes a movie — even a serious movie — depicting Mohammed, or perhaps reproduces the Mohammed cartoons in the course of making a movie about the cartoon controversy. Or imagine perhaps what might happen if extremist Muslims in the Middle East start trying to generate outrage over American Christians trying to convert some Muslims to Christianity, whether in America or using American Web sites to try to reach Middle Eastern countries.

I don’t have statistics on how many people would be willing to riot over such conversions, but 84% of Egyptian Muslims support enacting a law providing “the death penalty for those who leave the Muslim religion.” If even a tiny fraction of this 84% can be persuaded to riot over Americans’ trying to persuade Muslims to leave the Muslim religion, that could be plenty of people willing to murder. (See also this example of mob attacks on churches in Egypt “stoked in part by hard-line Islamic clerics warning that Christians were trying to convert Muslim women.”)

“Last time this happened, and our men killed four Americans, the Americans saw the light and decided to punish the blasphemers. They agreed that blasphemy must be suppressed — and yet they now shamelessly refuse to act on their promises!” (I doubt that the mob will have much of a sense of the nuances of American legal doctrine, so it’s a safe bet that they won’t know that the hypothetical new law doesn’t extend to “serious literature” or “genuine debate” or religious proselytizing; plus they might not view the Satanic Verses and the like as “serious literature” or “genuine debate.”) “Maybe the Americans forgotten what happened last time — but we haven’t. Let’s give them a taste of the same medicine that worked so well back then.”

Now the people I’m describing of course won’t include all Muslims, or most Muslims. But events over the past decades have shown that there are enough extremist Muslims (whatever their fraction of the Muslim population might be) who are willing to riot and murder in reaction to what they see as blasphemy. Obviously this is a large enough and dangerous enough subset of Muslims that some people are willing to try to forcibly suppress American speech in order to appease them. Will our accommodating these Muslim extremists diminish that impulse, or fuel it?

(I suppose some people might think that America’s good-faith efforts to try to suppress blasphemy would change some of the would-be rioters’ attitudes, as a gesture of goodwill towards their sensibilities. But the four murders were in Libya, a country that we had just helped save from a brutal tyrant, and were committed by Muslim extremists who were freer and more powerful as a result of our military help to the Libyan revolutionaries — if that didn’t build enough goodwill to save our people’s lives, then I don’t see how enacting a new speech restriction would.)

So what will we do after that next round of killings? Broaden the speech restriction, so that the Satanic Verses and proselytizing of Muslims and anything else that might provoke extremist Muslim murderers would be banned, too? Or hold the line, risking infuriating the extremists even more? People tend to be more angered by what they see is a broken promise of appeasement (even if they view the promise as much broader than its actual terms) than by a stubborn refusal to deal in the first place. And of course once the American government proves willing and able to suppress some blasphemy, it will be even easier to view the American government as responsible for refusing to suppress other blasphemy.

Moreover, this lesson — if you want to shut up the blasphemers, just kill enough Americans in response — will likely be learned not just by extremist Muslims but by others. Extremists of other religions might do the same with regard to American speech (or American behavior) that angers them. (Hindu religious riots and threats of violence seem to be limited right now to what the rioters and threateners see as provocations in India, but all it takes is for a few extremists to take the next step.) So would extremist nationalists of various nations who are angered by what American individuals or the American government is doing, or extremists of various transnational ideologies who are likewise anti-American.

To be sure, there is already some incentive for people in these groups to riot and kill to try to get their way (as well as some disincentive). But, again, will the example of our suppressing American speech to appease extremist Muslims be ignored by those other extremists? Or will it increase their incentives to adopt the tactics that worked so well for extremist Muslims? Remember the trifecta: kill Americans, visibly force America to change its ways, and on top of that suppress the blasphemy or other behavior that you dislike, win win win. That’s a hard temptation to resist.

That’s why it seems to me to actually be safer — not just better for First Amendment principles, but actually safer for Americans — to hold the line now, and make clear that American speech is protected even if foreigners choose to respond to it with murder. That would send the message, “murder won’t get you what you want.” Not a perfectly effective message to be sure, but a better one than “murder will get you what you want.”