The attack on the American consulate in Libya that left four dead, including our ambassador to that country, Chris Stevens, is outrageous and deplorable. The senseless loss of life there should be a cause of mourning for Americans, not a flash point in the presidential election. That said, Mitt Romney has a point in criticizing some of the Obama administration's statements about the attack.
The violence in Libya and simultaneous unruly protests at the American embassy in Cairo were ostensibly sparked by outrage over an obscure, unreleased film that is said to depict the Prophet Muhammad negatively and criticizes the Muslim religion. It violates an Islamic taboo on showing the image of Muhammad and, according to The Wall Street Journal, portrays him as both a pedophile and a womanizer.
The statement Mr. Romney pounced on was issued by American diplomats in Egypt as the protests were beginning there. It read: "The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions." The Obama administration later distanced itself from that statement, and this morning, the president said, "While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, we must all unequivocally oppose the kind of senseless violence that took the lives of these public servants."
Neither statement "sympathized" with the attackers, as Mr. Romney claimed. Nor did they amount to what Mr. Romney claims to be a pattern of Mr. Obama apologizing to the world. And it was in poor taste for Mr. Romney to open a line of political attack even as news broke about the deaths in Libya — on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks to boot. Suspicions, reported after Mr. Romney's statements, that the Libyan attack might have been pre-planned rather than the product of a spontaneous demonstration underscore the folly of seeking to politicize such an event. Nonetheless, Mr. Romney is right that the Obama administration's initial response failed to explain and defend the America's belief in free expression.
Mr. Romney's criticism cuts to a tricky issue we have faced repeatedly during our military operations in the Muslim world in recent years. Two of America's core values are the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech, and in our society, neither one is allowed to trump the other. But repeatedly in recent years, Western denigration of Islam — real or perceived, intentional or not — has led to violent protests in the Muslim world, and this is not the first time that they have put the safety of Americans at risk.
There have been times — such as the burning of the Quran on an American military base in Afghanistan — when it has been incumbent on the American government to apologize for a blasphemous act. But this case is different. The only responsibility the United States, as a government and as a society, bears for the offensive and misguided sentiments expressed in this film is to have created a system in which speech is protected even when it is abhorrent, and that is something we will not change and which we cannot hide.
Emphasizing that fact is not a matter of American arrogance or insensitivity to other cultures but a matter of honesty. Incidents like this one will recur because our government and society not only allow but celebrate free speech. Condemning the sentiments in this film is entirely appropriate, but doing so without explaining the context in which they are allowed falsely implies that we as a nation bear some accountability for them. We view protests and attacks targeting U.S. government installations and personnel in response to the free expression of a private individual as tragically irrational. But unless we use every opportunity to explain why that is the case, how can we expect people who live in societies that have not historically protected free expression to understand it?
What the Obama administration should have said is this: "The attack on our embassy in Libya was inexcusable and deplorable, and we mourn the loss of innocent life. The film that sparked the protests that led to this violence was produced by a private individual, and as a society, we protect individuals' right to free expression even when it is offensive. No matter how much we as a nation condemn the filmmaker's statements, we believe his right to make them is a cornerstone of democracy."
It is in our national interest and it is consistent with our national values to encourage the spread of democracy and basic human rights like the freedom of expression in the Middle East. We will not accomplish that by failing to demonstrate our own commitment to those values.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly described the producer of an anti-Islamic film that precipitated protests in the Middle East. Though the film's origins are mysterious, it has been linked to anti-Muslim activists in California. The Sun regrets the error.