At first anybody who believed the murderous assault on the American consulate in Benghazi was a terrorist attack didn't know what he was talking about. It was just the result of a spontaneous demonstration that got out of hand. It was all the fault of a shadowy little video that had taken the Prophet Mohammed's name in vain. It was the video that had provoked the violence. The attack couldn't have been planned in advance. Or anticipated, either.
At least that was the official line coming from the White House press secretary and our ambassador at the United Nations, and the whole administration stuck to it. For a while. A remarkably long while, considering how implausible it was. The learning curve in this administration can be laboriously slow.
Now, weeks later, after the funerals have been held and the bodies buried, and investigations have begun, the same White House press secretary who once dismissed all talk of a terrorist attack says, "It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack."
Good morning, Mr. Carney. So good to have you with us. At last. It's taken long enough. When Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., referred to what happened at Benghazi as "an act of terror" a few weeks ago, a spokesman for the Obama campaign said the senator was just being political.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, the White House press secretary explained that all this violence in the Middle East was a response "not to United States policy, and not obviously the administration or the American people," but "in response to a video that is offensive to Muslims."
He didn't get it. He had confused the pretext for these rampages with the reason: the war still being waged against America and the West by a fanatical group of Islamic zealots who will exploit every religious prejudice and historical grievance in their part of the world to attack us. Theirs is not just an ideological movement but a violent criminal conspiracy. Not unlike Nazism and Communism when they were rampaging.
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How long before this administration comes fully awake, and realizes that peace is assured by strength, not by cringing statements that only further inflame the fanatics and terrorists of the Middle East? The president's response to this embarrassment has been to reduce foreign policy to another campaign soundbite: "If Governor Romney is suggesting that we should start another war, he should say so." He still doesn't get it; it is appeasing aggression that is the sure road to war, not standing up to it.
Just before the attackers had breached the walls of our consulate in Benghazi, the American embassy in Cairo was issuing tweets trying to appease the gathering mob. Mitt Romney warned that this administration's policy of kowtowing to the zealots in the Middle East would only invite violence. Shows of weakness ("Please don't hit me!") will have that effect on bullies.
Barack Obama's response to Mr. Romney? The president went on the political attack himself, saying: "Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later."
Who was really being unpresidential in this case, and jumping to premature conclusions? It should now be apparent to all-even the White House seems to have caught on -- that this was no spontaneous eruption of Muslim outrage against some two -- bit video. The assault on our consulate at Benghazi was a well-planned terrorist attack. One carried out on the anniversary of 9/11.
How is it, do you suppose, that a presidential candidate who wasn't privy to all the military and diplomatic intelligence that the White House should be able to command, understood the nature of this violence, and what incites it, almost instinctively?
Why did Mitt Romney sense what was behind this gathering storm? Why did he know, and say, that an America in retreat across the Middle East, offering apologetic obeisance as we withdraw, presents a natural target for the worst elements in the Islamic world? While our president still seems blind to the dangers he has invited since he began his administration by going to Cairo to confess America's sins-and the West's -- and offer "a new beginning." Which n ow has turned into the same old treachery.
In retrospect, it is Mitt Romney who now seems the prescient statesman. Maybe it's because he understands that peace is assured by strength. Barack Obama and his press secretary seem to be discovering only slowly-and at great cost-where weakness leads. While good men representing this country with extraordinary vision and valor, like our murdered ambassador to Libya, pay the ultimate price.
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The problem remains the same one exemplified by those tweets out of our Cairo embassy. The gist of the message is still the same: We disapprove of that stupid video about the Prophet Mohammed, and disavow any connection with it. We back away from the central question in this debate rather than explain that the essence of freedom is not freedom only for the ideas we approve. That would not be freedom at all. In a free country, we do not censor ideas we disagree with, or even despise. We let them be expressed in the marketplace of ideas --in the faith that bad ideas need not be banned if good ones are left free to combat them. America's future, and the world's, is tied up with that kind of faith in freedom. That's who we are -- and should remain.
"If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other," Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote in a famous dissent, "it is the principle of free thought -- not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.'' If there is one thing that would be more un-American than agreeing with that hateful little video, it would be trying to suppress it. That's the educational point America's voice should be making abroad. Without apology.
Once upon a time, long ago, centuries ago, at the height of Islamic civilization, when it represented all that was most advanced in the world-science, toleration, learning, freedom of ideas -- Islam's rulers, philosophers and poets understood as much. It is that heritage, so close to the American spirit at its best, that should unite East and West in a common quest for enlightenment, security and mutual respect. And we should say so, boldly. Anything less would dishonor our own civilization -- and insult Muslims, who are perfectly capable of understanding our point. They need not be condescended to, which remains the default mode of Barack Obama's rhetorical style.
It will not do to adopt a defensive posture in hopes of appeasing the violent. There is no need to offer excuses for freedom, and no shame in embracing it openly, and advocating it proudly. Liberty should be celebrated, promoted and honored. It is America's reason for being. And we should make no apologies for it.