Free Expression: The Only Desideratum?

The Russians are annoyed. Are they so far off base? Or are those notorious anti-democrats just uncomfortable with what seems to some people to be the only thing that matters on God’s green earth — “freedom of expression”?

ABC News broadcast an interview with a guy who is — what do they call mass murderers now? Oh, yeah. He’s a “militant.” His name is Shamil Basayev:

Among other attacks, Basayev has been linked to a 2002 hostage-taking assault on a Moscow theater that left 170 people dead, a 2003 suicide attack in the Moscow subway that killed 41 people, and a 2003 double suicide bombing at a Moscow rock concert that killed 17 people.

One man’s freedom fighter, right? They’re only Russians, after all, not Englishmen or something. (Almost like being Israelis, I guess, ironically enough.) So now Russia won’t renew ABC-TV’s accreditation.

What does our ever-vigilant, terrorism-fighting State Department think of this?

In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said any decision that limited ABC’s operations in Russia would be regrettable.

“I think we believe that ABC as well as all other members of the media should have the opportunity for freedom of expression and have the right to report as they see fit,” Casey said.

I’m sure they’d feel the same way if the guy in the picture in the blog post below (not Burt) were interviewed on U.S. television telling “his side of the story,” right? Actually, considering that it’s the State Department… I am pretty sure of that.

I’m pretty big on free expression. It’s all over this blog. But I do not believe that mass murderers are “entitled” to free expression. They cede whatever right to it they may have had when they depart from civilization’s standards by killing civilians to make their political points. More: Because they use murder to make political points, helping them make their points by giving them air time or column ink is a bloody business indeed.

It’s been said often enough that liberalism — and I don’t mean left-wing-ism; I mean classical be-a-good-chap liberalism — seems to carry the seeds of its own destruction. We see this in action often enough, too; and in some places, the risk of that destruction seems frighteningly acute. Our own society usually manages to survive its self-induced wounds and bears the scars of “excessive liberalism” proudly and, seeing as how we (well, most of us) are still here, maybe it’s not a bad outcome. But in the case of Russia, democracy has virtually no roots. Transporting our hardy variety of free-speech-at-any-cost journalism to Russia, a land that is at war with Muslim extremists in Chechnia and that has no experience with free speech, is not a formula for encouraging democracy. To the contrary, this tactic seems more likely to choke it off before it can indeed take root.

Does the State Department, supporting ABC here, really care about the long-run fate of democracy in Russia, the fight against terrorism, and the future of our relations with the most likely counterweight to China? Or does it just automatically pump out statements like this as it does the usual bloodless “condemnations” of terrorist atrocities militant expressions of root causes?

UPDATE: Looking at a trackback I found my way to a blog called Caerdroia , which took the other side of this issue, writing, “And let’s face it: a free society can tolerate a badly behaved press to some degree, but no society can tolerate a tyrannical government, and the silencing of criticism of a tyrannical government is simply unacceptable.” I posted a comment there (it is being reviewed while I write this), and after posting it, I got this message:

I will also either not post or will edit any comment that contains information which may cause harm, such as revealing personal information about a law enforcement officer or information that may in any way aid the enemy

Very admirable!

UPDATE: Ranting Profs develops the argument.

UPDATE: Great discussion here, too.

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Author:Ron Coleman

I write this blog.

19 Responses to “Free Expression: The Only Desideratum?”

  1. Whitehall
    August 2, 2005 at 6:46 pm #

    Did the State Department intercede in the case of CNN and Saddam Hussein? Nooo.

    Because the Russians are righteously hacked off at the interviewee, it is within their scope of sovereignty to control his communications.

    Can a prisoner in the US write a book about their crimes? Yes, but they can’t profit by it so we have our laws too. Hope the Russians don’t make too much of that in return.

  2. Joe Snail
    August 2, 2005 at 7:35 pm #

    I think I have to agree with the State Department here. I don’t think this is so much about freedom of expression as it is about aggressive journalism. The more a society knows about its enemies, the sooner it will beat those enemies.

    I have no idea what standard the interview was up to, but a good interview with hard-hitting questions should not come across as propaganda for the interviewee. Peter Bergen’s “Holy War, Inc.” describes an interview with Osama bin Laden, but it is clearly not pro al Qaeda propaganda. And I think America is better armed in the war on terror for having books like that.

  3. August 2, 2005 at 7:44 pm #

    Joe, just to use the classic ur-example: Would it have been appropriate during World War II for a U.S. media outlet to interview Hitler and get “his side of the story”?

  4. August 2, 2005 at 9:35 pm #

    The case of Hitler is slightly different. He was a more or less open enemy in the sense that we knew where the Germans were, where they are based, what the threat is. So there would be no purpose for such an interview other than to promote Hitler’s propoganda.

    We don’t know what the threat is from terror networks. I think it’s good that we had had interviews with bin Laden. I certainly agree that we shouldn’t be helping them make their point. But informing the public about the kind of threat facing us is important. If maybe we had more interviews with these maggots on our airwaves, people would have been lulled out of Monica-gate enough to realize that they are at war with us. In 1998 not in 2001.

    As for the actual details of what is happening in this case, this isn’t just Russia banning the showing of this interview. It’s Russia retaliating against a network by saying that it can no longer do business in Russia. Since the State Department and CIA both publish reports and are concerned about the state of human rights and freedom of expression in other countries, presumably, it’s a good idea to say something when a country decides to kick out a newspaper for publishing an interview with an enemy.

    Would you have supported closing down a newspaper that published an interview with Hitler in World War II? It’s not just a question of whether I think that this is a good idea or not. It’s a question of whether we ought to kick those people out or throw them in jail. And by the way, during World War II, there were people who wanted us to make a deal with Hitler in the middle of the war. I don’t recall anyone having thrown them in prison.

  5. August 2, 2005 at 11:13 pm #

    I am sure that yes, any newspaper publishing an interview with Hitler during World War II would have been shut down. But even if not, that was America, not Russia. We could handle it; Russia arguably can’t. It doesn’t have the institutions of democracy nor the cultural roots. (Remember how restricted pro-Nazi expressions were in Germany for years after the War.) But in my view the real point is that during World War II giving the enemy a platform would have been unthinkable.

    The point of the terrorists being “stateless” does not strike me as relevant to this discussion, though, Gene.

  6. August 3, 2005 at 1:51 am #

    Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, a child molester and even Basayev are all newsworthy. No journalist should be sanctioned by any government for reporting on the views of any person, no matter how revolting.

  7. Joe Snail
    August 3, 2005 at 2:40 am #

    Absolutely, it would be entirely appropriate (and indeed, iMho, a journalist’s patriotic duty) to interview the enemy, even the most evil enemy you can think of (e.g. Hitler). I thought by citing OBL I already had an example evil enough for anyone to know where I stood, but if you have to choose an example even more evil, yeah, I stand by my statement.

    Again, I’m assuming that the journalist is a good interviewer who asks tough questions and doesn’t allow the interview to turn into a propaganda session. Your remarks and tone appear to indicate that you think interviewing someone automatically means sympathizing with him, but I don’t think you have any basis for saying that (and again I cite “Holy War, Inc.” as an example of interviewing someone while clearly not sympathizing with him).

    You may be right that a media outlet would have been shut down for doing an interview with Hitler. But it would have been wrong on democratic principles, and wrong on America’s interest. Even the “Greatest Generation” wasn’t perfect.

    I don’t see a lot of merit in your condescending argument that the Russian public can’t handle hearing what its enemies think because they don’t have our “democratic institutions”. Basayev knows what the Russians are thinking, so if the Russians don’t know what Basayev is thinking that automatically puts Russia at a disadvantage. This is crucial, newsworthy information for the Russian public, and if they can’t handle it they need to learn fast. We want Russia to win on their front in the war on terror to make victory easier on our front. The Russian government can shoot itself in the foot if it wants to, but I totally agree with the State Department’s decision to criticize them for doing so.

  8. August 3, 2005 at 8:55 am #

    Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, a child molester and even Basayev are all newsworthy. No journalist should be sanctioned by any government for reporting on the views of any person, no matter how revolting.

    So you are simply answering the question posed in the title of my posting, Craig, as a “yes” — free expression trumps all other interests. In fact, I would argue that even a free society such as ours, and all others I can think of, disagree. Incarcerated prisoners are not given routine permission to make public statements and give interviews, which incidentally in my view are entirely different topics from newsorthiness.

    Is the only difference a legal conviction? Most of history’s worst fiends were never convicted. Yes, their thoughts on their crimes and perhaps much else would be “newsworthy” — but in the midst of war against them in which their primary weapons are fear — terror — the threat — why should their would-be victims be victimized by amplification of that weapon?

  9. August 3, 2005 at 9:22 am #

    Absolutely, it would be entirely appropriate (and indeed, iMho, a journalist’s patriotic duty) to interview the enemy, even the most evil enemy you can think of (e.g. Hitler).

    So, Joe, would it be fair to say that, like Craig, you think the highest value a journalist can contribute while fighting a war — war, meaning the other side wants your or your loved ones dead — is providing the enemy with opportunities to be heard? That’s a point of view. It’s just not mine. In my view a patriot’s duty in times of war is to fight the enemy, not “feature” him; and I don’t believe being a journalist changes the definition of what a patriot is. That doesn’t mean a journalist or any other person has no right to opine or report contrary to the war effort, although either of these can arguably cross the line into “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.”

    I thought by citing OBL I already had an example evil enough for anyone to know where I stood, but if you have to choose an example even more evil, yeah, I stand by my statement.

    I’m not weighing bad guys, Joe. I am, rather, comparing the political environment: During World War II, the fringe of Hitler apologists and opponents of the war was far slimmer than today’s equivalent, so I wanted to correct for that distinction.

    Again, I’m assuming that the journalist is a good interviewer who asks tough questions and doesn’t allow the interview to turn into a propaganda session.

    Why assume that? In fact the vast majority of interviewers are not that skilled. Does Dan Rather know how to break knees in an interview? You bet. Did he turn into tapioca when he interviewed Saddam Hussein before the war? Yup. In general, tyrants don’t set themselves up to be interviewed aggressively.

    Your remarks and tone appear to indicate that you think interviewing someone automatically means sympathizing with him, but I don’t think you have any basis for saying that (and again I cite “Holy War, Inc.” as an example of interviewing someone while clearly not sympathizing with him).

    I don’t know anything about “Holy War, Inc.” except that I understand that it’s a book, not a broadcast interview, which raises many of the same issues but some different ones as well. Note that while many supporters of OBL were interviewed he, of course, was not. The symbolic distiction between interviewing a leader, however wicked, of his iconic stature, and essentially anonymous lieutenants, is in my view quite substantial.

    As you know, Joe, electronic media is largely where the propaganda power is. Let me ask you: Do you think a Saddam Hussein or a Basayev agree to an interview because they consider its benefits to be ambiguous?

    You may be right that a media outlet would have been shut down for doing an interview with Hitler. But it would have been wrong on democratic principles, and wrong on America’s interest.

    A democracy’s first duty is the same as the first duty of any government, namely the protection of its citizens from harm. In war, it is axiomatic that my enemy’s leader is not permitted to address my side directly. If you think of that as a debatable proposition, we can discuss that too, but I don’t think it is.

    Even the “Greatest Generation” wasn’t perfect.

    I’ll grant you that. My generation grew up terrified by the world created by their lousy kids!

    I don’t see a lot of merit in your condescending argument that the Russian public can’t handle hearing what its enemies think because they don’t have our “democratic institutions”.

    Let’s skip the adjectives and have the discussion. It is silly to treat Russians like Anglo-Saxons; in fact, it’s ethnocentric. It’s not a matter of what “the Russian public” can “handle.” (Let’s ignore the continued existence of Stalinist parties and factions even in the Russian parliament and consider them merely equivalent to our comparable — though of course not revanchist — fringes.) It’s a matter of what the embryonic Russian political and cultural regimes will tolerate, and what we want to see develop there, both in their and our interests. There is certainly plenty of good faith argument as to whether the idea of going directly to an unregulated economy on the framework of a gangster-style authoritarian regime was a good idea or not. Economic freedom, of course, is a sine qua non of political freedom; yet many people of good faith wonder whether the long-run economic freedom of the Russians would have been better served by a more gradual and controlled evolution toward markets combined with a true de-gangsterization process.

    Basayev knows what the Russians are thinking, so if the Russians don’t know what Basayev is thinking that automatically puts Russia at a disadvantage.

    You think Basayev revealed profound tactical secrets in the interview?

    This is crucial, newsworthy information for the Russian public, and if they can’t handle it they need to learn fast. We want Russia to win on their front in the war on terror to make victory easier on our front. The Russian government can shoot itself in the foot if it wants to, but I totally agree with the State Department’s decision to criticize them for doing so.

    That’s totally your right. I think that even if you are correct, it may have been advisable for the State Department to have demonstrated some appreciation for the dilemmas involved.

  10. Chris C.
    August 3, 2005 at 10:33 am #

    It’s a matter of what the embryonic Russian political and cultural regimes will tolerate, and what we want to see develop there, both in their and our interests.
    There is another side to this argument, though. Can the current Russian politicial and cultural regimes handle the censoring and removal of a media voice completely on the basis of undesireable content? At what point does letting them censor undesireable media content, no matter how justified the reasoning, set up conditions for a return to the state-run media Russia is not that far removed from?

  11. August 3, 2005 at 10:36 am #

    I thought my yes should be emphatic as possible. Here is why:

    I believe that the truth is always the most important thing, and that in the marketplace of ideas, it should never be suppressed, regardless of the apparent nobility of the reasons for suppression.

    Truth is tough to find. Most of us can’t handle 100% truth, either as speakers or listeners, so when we read a journalist’s account of an event or watch an interview we have to read between the lines and try to figure out what the truth is based on the available evidence. I didn’t see the ABC piece on Baseyev, but I imagine that much of what he said was propaganda. That doesn’t make his speech worthless, it just means that I (and the journalist interviwing him) have to work harder to figure out the truth about him.

    It is important to know the truth about him because like it or not, he must be dealt with, one way or the other. I don’t want someone cutting off important information about something because they are afraid that a journalist might not do his job very well, or that I might not be smart enough to see through the propaganda to the truth.

    Therefore, I emphatically disagree with your base principle that in war, it is axiomatic that my enemy’s leader is not permitted to address my side directly. Exactly the opposite is true. We should intensely examine the enemy’s leader in whatever way is available so that we better understand him.

    Moreover, in a democracy we should not delegate that task to our leaders. When we are at war, we all have a duty to understand as much as possible about what is going on. When we shirk that responsbility, we invite the demagogues and charlatans to take over the public debate with inevitably ruinious results.

  12. Joe Snail
    August 3, 2005 at 2:17 pm #

    Craig is making the same basic Mill-ian points as I am, only doing a better job of it, so I won’t add anything there. However, I would like to respond to our host on a few specific points he raised:

    So, Joe, would it be fair to say that, like Craig, you think the highest value a journalist can contribute while fighting a war — war, meaning the other side wants your or your loved ones dead — is providing the enemy with opportunities to be heard?

    Replace “heard” with “studied, analyzed and out-witted” and I think you’ve about got it right. “Heard” alone implies sympathy for the interviewee, whereas it’s part of a journalist’s job to be critical.

    Note that while many supporters of OBL were interviewed he, of course, was not.

    This statement is not correct. Peter Bergen interviewed OBL directly, prior to 9/11. That interview is the centerpiece of Bergen’s book, and I still think (anti-axiomatically or not) that America is better armed in the war on terror for having books like that, where the enemy leader’s statements can be directly reviewed and analyzed.

    Do you think a Saddam Hussein or a Basayev agree to an interview because they consider its benefits to be ambiguous?

    Whatever they may be trying to gain is irrelevant. A terrorist’s ideas are disgusting and barbaric, and we civilized human beings should have nothing to fear from exposing those ideas to the light of day.

    You think Basayev revealed profound tactical secrets in the interview?

    It’s kind of funny how we’re discussing this interview when none of us has seen a transcript (and I for one wouldn’t be able to read the Russian anyway). However, I think, yes, any information a terrorist reveals about himself (even deliberate disinformation) is potentially a tool that can be used against him.

  13. August 3, 2005 at 6:05 pm #

    There is another side to this argument, though. Can the current Russian politicial and cultural regimes handle the censoring and removal of a media voice completely on the basis of undesireable content?

    Why “completely”? Who said “completely”? In fact, my criticism of the State Department is its suggestion that the “completely” part is that the free expression is the only thing that matters.

  14. August 3, 2005 at 6:07 pm #

    Craig, Joe — well done, and thanks for your comments. I could go on forever on this, and if you want to I will (because it’s fun, not because I’m so sure I’m right!) but I don’t know if anyone else cares…

  15. Joe Snail
    August 3, 2005 at 10:26 pm #

    Yes, this has been fun! Thanks for providing the forum. Hope I didn’t bore your readers too much.

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  4. LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION » Blog Archive » Ideological purity - January 24, 2007

    […] Incidentally, I take the stated concern with morality, as understood by the bourgeois among us — “We must promote civilized running and use of the Internet and purify the Internet environment” — at face value. It’s not an illegitimate concern, issues of power apart. The Internet is, or perhaps more accurately encompasses many things including, a moral cesspool. Free societies have by and large surrendered to this risk, preferring the very real risk of social harm to what they regard as the intolerable cost of censorship. How China goes about making its way on this issue, regardless of our view of it, will be objectively interesting and will matter beyond the borders of Middle Earth. […]