I had occasion a few days ago to chat with a wise and thoughtful colleague whom I see too infrequently. We met as a prairie fire of indignation and violence was spreading across much of the Arab world in outrage against a poorly made short film produced in the United States that mocked Islam and the Prophet. My esteemed colleague’s reaction was similar to mine. He shook his head and suggested that the irrationality of humankind never failed to amaze him. He was surely right about the logic of the behavior then unfolding. Rampaging individuals caused untold property damage and worse in multiple locations across the region while attacking symbols of the United States government in outrage over a poorly crafted film made by a clearly hate-filled and hateful Egyptian- American. Meanwhile, militants in Libya apparently used the cover afforded by widespread anger over the film to murder a deeply sympathetic American ambassador.
The filmmaker’s handiwork was and is repulsive, but it was his production and not that of the United States as a nation. It did not represent that government’s policies and it certainly did not exemplify the collective view of the American people or that of the innocent individuals who bore the brunt of the violence the “mockumentary” unleashed. So, it is indeed reasonable to ask why so many could behave so badly because a poorly made film, which many of those protesting had not even seen, had offended them. It is equally reasonable to inquire more deeply into what these incidents across several Arab nations may portend more broadly for human capacities to engage in democratic self-governance and for those countries particularly, to develop self- governing regimes.
At one level it is at least plausible to argue that the outraged individuals (apart from the apparently well-organized tragic violence in Libya) attacked symbols of the U.S. when they learned the film ridiculing the Prophet had been made in America. Yet, even a moment’s reflection should have stayed those people as they assailed innocents and property with no relationship to the real target of their ire. But, as my friend noted, those individuals engaged in these actions did not reflect, not even for that proverbial moment. Instead, they reacted, and in apparently emotionally blinded anger to what they saw as unconscionable insults to their religion’s founder. Undisciplined mob fury too often ruled the day and it wrought what such behavior usually yields, deeply unfortunate and unjust consequences.
And it is just this human propensity to uncontrolled tyrannizing impulse that led so many political philosophers to conclude for so long that democratic self-governance was simply not possible. How could people be expected to deliberate and to discipline their passions when the form of governance itself gave them leave to allow their emotions full flower, as they might wish? Why trust citizens with ensuring the freedoms of individuals among them when a simple majority (especially, but not simply, at the local scale) might at any time jettison their claims to that liberty to satisfy their anger, prejudice, ignorance or blood lust?
Nonetheless, despite such strong and long-lived criticisms, America’s founders sought to craft a regime that would hedge against individual or majority tyranny while providing the citizenry maximum individual freedom. And in the last several decades, in nations all over the globe, that prototypically human aspiration to self-governance has become at once a touchstone and lodestar. But these recent events in several Arab nations have suggested once more how difficult it is to attain and maintain the conditions necessary to secure self-governing democratic regimes in any culture. They demand a citizenry with sufficient prudence and capacity for disciplined self-reflection. They require cultures that produce individuals and populations willing to countenance difference and to discipline their own preferences at least occasionally for the good of others and to reflect actively and deliberatively before taking actions that might affect the freedoms of their fellow citizens.
More, they require a citizenry that understands the need for the rule of law. These conditions have not always obtained in the United States and may now be enervating in its culture, but the recent violence makes clear they are not yet fully rooted in many Arab nations seeking to transition to self-governance. Mayhem and mass hysterical reaction to a clownish film attacking a religious leader suggests the very fragile character of the supposed democratic flowering in the affected countries. Freedom is, as the old adage warns, hard won and easily lost. This sad episode metaphorically suggests that the very possibility of self-governance now hangs in the balance in many Arab nations and one may hope responsible government, religious and social leaders in those countries will call for temperance and reflection and take all measures feasible to encourage new and more vigorous spaces and possibilities for civic reflection and acculturation. One may also obtain a measure of hope from the horror and sorrow with which many Libyans have reacted to the murder of Ambassador Stephens in their nation and their steps to disarm the militias believed responsible.
Freedom and self-governance of any stripe are unlikely in the Arab countries set aflame by this ugly little film and will not be sustained unless their populations acquire and maintain the necessary habits of mind and heart to permit them to do so. Hate-filled violence, however justified by those inflicting it, must be appropriately met and judged by institutions and processes governed by laws and supported by citizenries aware of the vital role their norms and behavior play in sustaining social order and vitality.