After a young British soldier named Lee Rigby was hacked to death with machetes and cleavers in broad daylight by Islamist fanatics last week, his government’s response included a warning that British troops should avoid wearing their uniforms in public when traveling alone, at least temporarily, as a “common-sense precaution” for their own safety.
The British have been brothers-in-arms with American troops throughout a long and bloody century, fighting and dying together in defiance of one monstrous evil after the next, so an American hearing this desperate foolishness can’t help but wince. The “answer” to a savage assault on a soldier while he’s strolling through his home city is a warning to his fellow troops that it would be best to hide their identities for a while, because their safety can’t be guaranteed? Nuts to that.
Another part of the British government’s response involved cracking down on citizens who grow too vigorous about denouncing Rigby’s murderers in their social media posts. One man got busted for “making malicious comments” of an allegedly “racist or anti-religious nature” on Facebook, while another enjoyed a little visit from the police after making some overheated online comments of his own, according to the UK Daily Mail. One cannot help but notice the authorities have not been so aggressive about cracking down on the sort of “malicious comments” that led those jihadists to run Rigby down with a car and chop his head off. One of the killers is linked to a group that carried out hateful demonstrations and howled “British soldiers burn in hell!” on a day their “adopted country” sets aside to honor fallen troops.
That’s all happening on the other side of the Atlantic, but it’s not without ominous parallels in the United States. When the American ambassador to Libya was murdered in Benghazi, his government cooked up a fairy tale about protests against an offensive YouTube video spiraling out of control. Two former Navy SEALs, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, ignored orders to leave Ambassador Chris Stevens and diplomat Sean Smith to their fates, and died defending them. They died fighting terrorists armed with precision mortars, not demonstrators waving protest signs. They took on fifty-to-one odds, and gave the enemy reason to regret tangling with them. It is offensive and sinful for their government to have concealed the nature of their final stand, and of the enemy they fought.
We wound up watching President Obama, still trying to keep the “video protest” pretense alive, giving a speech to the United Nations in which he suggested we’d all better watch what we say, lest we excite the passions of the more excitable among us. “The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam,” said the President. “But to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied.”
On the contrary, it’s more urgent that we deny control of “the future” to politicians who think they get to decide which religious figures can still be “slandered” despite being dead for centuries, or who would set up an exchange in which prohibitions against offensive speech are traded like carbon credits. And our security interests are not served by pretending an organized enemy attack was somehow provoked by intemperate speech.
We are Americans, which means we are not afraid of provocative speech. We believe in providing a robust answer to hard words, rather than outlawing them… or making allowances for a violent response from the aggrieved. We know that our very existence is provocative to those who would do us harm. We couldn’t hide from them if we tried… and we’re not much inclined to try, in part because we are not willing to abandon the rest of the world to tyranny. Not only would that be callous and immoral, it would also be strategically unwise.
There is nothing contradictory about a peaceful nation taking pride in its soldiers. We are reverent toward the fallen on Memorial Day because we know the nation they died defending, and the liberties enjoyed by her people, are neither inevitable nor indestructible. The battle will always be coming to us. If we keep our eyes open, we can have some say in where the battlefield is located, and whether the enemy faces the civilians they would prey upon, or the American soldiers they understandably fear.
How can we honor the fallen if we are unclear about why they fought, or what enemy they opposed? Respect for our troops means clearly identifying the enemy. And every potential enemy needs to know that he faces hell on Earth, at the hands of men and women who have given the full measure of devotion to a nation that returns such devotion.
There is more to Francis Scott Key’s original composition than the part of the Star-Spangled Banner we sing as our national anthem. Another verse speaks of America’s will to prevail:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
War is a terrible business. Peace comes when aggressors decide that terrible business would be a bad investment. The predatory regimes and philosophies can decide whether they want to see American troops bearing arms, or food and medicine for disaster relief. But let them always see us clearly, and let us always look them straight in the eye, and use plain words to describe their sins.
That star-spangled banner waves proudly from uniform patches and front porches. It waves above American soil on both the home front, and embassies within foreign borders. It catches the summer breeze above quiet ground where the fallen rest beside brothers they never met in life, and it stands joyous guard above backyard banquet tables where all of the fallen are honorary guests. At some of those banquets today, parents freshly returned from theaters of war are serving burgers and hot dogs to children who will someday follow in their footsteps. They won’t do it with their eyes closed. They should not be asked to defend a blind nation.