As news reports construct what happened in Cairo and Benghazi, the US Embassy in Egypt quickly issued a statement that affirmed free speech as a universal right and condemned the bigotry that used that freedom to attack religious beliefs. A member of the embassy summarized the message by way of two rapidly consecutive tweets:
We firmly reject the actions of those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others
as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.
It's hard to say what effect, if any, this had. It probably had none, as protest groups formed, then became protest crowds, and protest crowds teetered on the edge of mob action. Twelve hours later, after protesters violated the integrity of Embassy walls, tearing down the American flag and replacing it with what may have been a crude black flag with words often associated with Islamic extremists, there was a follow up message from the same embassy member.
This morning's condemnation (issued before protest began) still stands. As does our condemnation of unjustified breach of the Embassy.
Four hours after that, Secretary Clinton confirmed that an American had been killed in Benghazi, Libya. She deplored "any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others." Then she emphasized this: "But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."
About the same time, an anonymous US official said the original Cairo embassy message was not authorized and did not represent views of the United States.
After that, Mitt Romney released a statement that accused the Obama administration of sympathizing with those who murdered an American consulate worker instead of condemning the attack.
I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.
It was a boneheaded and, depending on whether Mitt Romney was aware that he was stating a falsehood, astonishingly dishonest statement. It came across as a blatant effort to score a cheap political point during an ongoing tragedy.
The possibility that Governor Romney had innocently gotten his facts wrong disappeared the following morning as the Republican candidate defended his condemnation in a press conference. He made the same accusations again, knowing by then that his words were false.
"I also believe the administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions."
This Romney untruth was followed a little later by:
"Simply put, having an embassy which is -- has been breached and has protesters on its grounds, having violated the sovereignty of the United States -- having that embassy reiterate a statement effectively apologizing for the right of free speech is not the right course for an administration."
Watching, yet again, Mitt Romney's Wednesday morning defense of his Tuesday late night statement, I am struck by something in addition to the words. His eyes dart nervously as if watching a tennis match. Back and forth, then again and again. Rapidly, then slowly, seemingly focused for a second, then resuming the uncontrolled darting back and forth.
Eons of evolution, abetted by a cultural bias, make us suspicious of this mannerism. The word "shifty" is often associated with it. We are wary, distrustful of someone who cannot hold a steady gaze. In an age of televised statements, this may be unfair.
Some nervous reflex at speaking under pressure before a broadcast audience may be the actual cause. We might discount for Governor Romney what might, and should, make us suspicious of the plaid suited, fast talking, sales rep assuring us that his word is his bond.
In fact, aside from this uncontrolled tic, the candidate seems completely comfortable with what he is saying. The impression is one of quick oscillation, a jerky sort of waver between confidence and hesitation. It is like some inner tug-of-war intrudes on the interaction with a skeptical press.
It comes to me at last what this contest between self-assurance and personal discomfort awakens in the back of my memory. It revives a piece of intermittent history spanning decades up to the mid 1970s. It is as if Mitt Romney, as the tragic drama unfolds, has lapsed into a ghoulish game of Charades, performing a flawless imitation, waiting for us to guess the historical figure whose mannerisms he has captured so well.
Finally, I have it.
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