I must have hit a nerve.
In New Hampshire last week, at a dinner hosted by the Loeb School honoring our 1st-Amendment rights, I called for a serious debate about the 1st Amendment and how terrorists are abusing our rights - using them as they once used passenger jets - to threaten and kill Americans.
Here's part of what I said: "Either before we lose a city, or, if we are truly stupid, after we lose a city, we will adopt rules of engagement that use every technology we can find to break up [terrorists'] capacity to use the Internet, to break up their capacity to use free speech [protections] and to go after people who want to kill us - to stop them from recruiting people before they get to reach out and convince young people to destroy their lives while destroying us." Click to listen.
Free Speech Is Not an Acceptable Cover for Those Planning to Kill
Since I made those remarks, I've heard from many, many Americans who understand the seriousness of the threat that faces us, Americans who believe as I do that free speech should not be an acceptable cover for people who are planning to kill other people who have inalienable rights of their own.
A small number of others have been quick to demagogue my remarks. Missing from the debate? Any reference to the very real threats that face Americans.
There was no mention of last week's letter from Iranian leader Ahmadinejad that threatens to kill Americans in large numbers if we don't submit to his demands.
There has been little attention drawn to any of the many websites dedicated to training and recruiting terrorists, including a recent one that promises to train terrorists "to use the Internet for the sake of jihad."
No mention of efforts by terrorist groups like Hezbollah to build "franchises" among leftist, anti-globalization groups worldwide, especially in Latin America.
Words as Weapons
The fact is not all speech is permitted under the Constitution. The 1st Amendment does not protect lewd and libelous speech, and it should not - and cannot in 2006 - be used as a shield for murderers.
Former federal prosecutor Andy McCarthy put it best: "With an enemy committed to terrorism, the advocacy of terrorism - the threats, the words - are not mere dogma, or even calls to 'action.' They are themselves weapons - weapons of incitement and intimidation, often as effective in achieving their ends as would be firearms and explosives brandished openly."
We need a serious dialogue - not knee-jerk hysteria - about the 1st Amendment, what it protects and what it should not protect. Here are a few baseline principles to consider:
- We should be allowed to close down websites that recruit suicide bombers and provide instructions to indiscriminately kill civilians by suicide or other means, or advocate killing people from the West or the destruction of Western civilization;
- We should propose a Geneva-like convention for fighting terrorism that makes very clear that those who would fight outside the rules of law, those who would use weapons of mass destruction and those who would target civilians are in fact subject to a totally different set of rules that allow us to protect civilization by defeating barbarism before it gains so much strength that it is truly horrendous. A subset of this convention should define the international rules of engagement on what activities will not be protected by free speech claims; and
- We need an expeditious review of current domestic law to see what changes can be made within the protections of the 1st Amendment to ensure that free speech protection claims are not used to protect the advocacy of terrorism, violent conduct or the killing of innocents.
The 'Flying Imams:' Discrimination or Intimidation?
And just as free speech protections shouldn't be allowed to shield activities that threaten Americans, so too should we not allow our great national belief in nondiscrimination and equality before the law to be used against us.
Indications are growing that this is precisely what the group of Islamic clerics who were removed from a US Airways flight a few weeks ago was engaged in: an effort to intimidate our airlines and air security officials into tolerating suspicious behavior for fear of being labeled a bigot - or worse.
Recall that the six Imams were removed from a US Airways flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix after exhibiting suspicious behavior. They quickly produced a lawyer who argued that their rights had been violated and news reports were quick to assert that the airline had acted improperly.
Mimicking the September 11 Hijackers
But consider these facts, which are slowly coming to light via bloggers and independent voices in the mainstream media:
- Although the men all boarded the plane together, they spread out once they were inside - as if mimicking the 9/11 hijackers - two in the front of the plane, two in the middle and two in the rear. According to the airline, some took seats not assigned to them.
- An Arabic speaker seated near the two in the rear of the plane reported that the men were invoking "bin Laden" and condemning America for "killing Saddam."
- Several of the Imams asked for seat-belt extenders, even though they did not appear to need them.
Kudos to US Airways for Acting Fairly - And Not Backing Down
Not just one passenger (as had been reported) but multiple people on the plane and in the airport prior to boarding reported that the group of men was acting suspiciously.
Writing in the New York Post, Richard Miniter reports that, contrary to reports that the airline acted precipitously or singled anyone out for "flying while Muslim," the captain of the flight consulted several sources - including a federal air marshal - before making the decision to remove the Imams. All agreed that the men were behaving suspiciously.
As more and more information comes to light, it's becoming clear that US Airways should be commended for the fair and professional manner in which it handled this situation.
But We Can't Stop There
Congress should pass a resolution making it clear that we will not tolerate those who seek to intimidate us into relaxing our security procedures. Trouble makers like the six in Minneapolis should be arrested and prosecuted - both for the security of the flying public and as a deterrent to future provocative acts. The message must go out: We are a fair and tolerant nation. But we will not allow our tolerance to be used as a weapon against us.
The "flying Imams," it now seems clear, were testing us. We should let them and everyone else watching know that we passed.
P.S. - The letter from Iranian leader Ahmadinejad that I referred to above deserves closer scrutiny from both the American people and our leaders. In a chilling deconstruction of the letter in the Washington Times, author Kenneth R. Timmerman concludes that Ahmadinejad's message to America is the following: "Dump George W. Bush, allow the Muslims to destroy Israel, and adopt Islam - or else you will be destroyed." You can read his entire analysis here.