Screenshot from ‘Muhammad Movie Trailer’
Once again, a document produced by a private citizen has resulted in violence by religious enthusiasts. The US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, has been killed, along with three other consular staff in Benghazi, apparently because people got upset by this video trailer, reportedly produced by Sam Bacile (which may just be a not-so-clever pseudonymous play on “imbecile”, in which case, perhaps this is all a ruse) and funded by some wealthy friends. (What’s up on Youtube is called a trailer. It’s not clear if a full movie exists.)
This happened before, of course, when people got upset by some cartoons in Denmark and elsewhere in 2005. You could feel the chill almost immediately. Though it was big news, newspapers and broadcasters, even websites that discussed the story refused to reproduce the cartoons. Some made a show of it being out of respect for Muslim audiences, but anyone working in the media at the time can tell you it was simple fear of reprisals. To paraphrase George W. Bush, the terrorists had won.
So, before we go any further, if you haven’t already, I urge you to watch at least part of the video.
It’s ludicrously bad, offensive aesthetically as much as ideologically or religiously, but that is naturally not the point. Those cartoons in the Jyllands-Posten weren’t so hot either. The issue is whether violence and threats can ensure objectionable material does not get seen. They must not.
The Streisand Effect must be applied to all media that provokes this sort of response. The more they threaten, the more people see what must not be seen. Their tactics must not only be ineffective, they must backfire, cause them more harm than good.
The Internet hadn’t really got going when the Danish cartoons came out. Facebook had bought its domain name just the month before, and Twitter was just a glimmer in Jack Dorsey’s mind. It actually took me a couple of weeks to find the cartoons.
Every story about these deaths and the continuing riots should feature a link to the video. Distressingly, the first five I checked did not, including this BBC story that was entirely about the video.
News is still coming in about what’s going on in Benghazi. The latest is that the ambassador was asphyxiated. President Obama, using a phrase depressingly reminiscent of his predecessor, said today in response to the deaths, “Make no mistake: Justice will be done.”
If recent history is any indication, that means we can expect another couple of executions without trial. But before that happens, let’s execute the fundamental sort of justice we’re all capable of, and make sure that execrable video does not go unseen.
(While you’re at it, this would be an excellent time to drop by PEN Canada‘s site and look through the work they’re doing on behalf of people who have been silenced by various forms of terror. I hear they accept donations.)