09/19/2012 04:16 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2012

From 9/11 to Libya: Why There Is No "Us" and "Them"

The post-9/11 American question, reflexively posed by a confounded and furious public to the gravest tragedy ever to occur on U.S. soil, was, "Why do they hate us?" Today, as Americans are glued to the images of their country's flag-burning and its embassies attacked in over a dozen countries across the world, the recurrence of this reflex is inevitable.

But while Americans have every right to be as angry and confused as they were on September 12, 2001, they also have the duty to be introspective and measured before acting or speaking, as they never were in the aftermath of 9/11. And this includes investigating the follow-up questions -- whom exactly are "they"? And is there really an "us"?

Stepping into the void...

In October 2001, Fareed Zakaria penned his essay "Why Do They Hate Us," coaching a generation of Americans in understanding the threat that had suddenly ignited across the world. Zakaria astutely pinned the rise of anti-Americanism in the Arab world on a variety of factors, including the diminished freedom enjoyed in the Arab world during the rise of Communism, the region's corrupt and stagnant economy, and the emergence of zealous leaders who traded religious devotion for political gain. Zakaria then compared the rise of Islamic fundamentalism to that of Fascism in pre-war Europe, where a dearth of social services and governmental structure similarly created a lethal void into which fanatical leaders marched large swaths of the population.

Zakaria's analysis echoed the words of former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, writing in the context of the 1950s' Chinese Revolution (and for our purposes replacing "Asia" with "the Middle East"):

In Asia, population, differences in race, ideas, languages, religion, culture, and development are vast. But, throughout, run two deep common attitudes -- revulsion against the poverty and misery of centuries and against more recent foreign domination. Blended, they had evoked throughout Asia the revolutionary forces of nationalism. Resignation had given way to hope and anger.

So it appears that "their" hatred is the result of two forces that burn off of each other: a power vacuum left by revolution and the smoldering resentment of poverty and foreign intervention. Other modern examples of this perfect storm are rare, but arguably include the rise of Hitler in the wake of World War I and this summer's election of the terrifying neo-Nazi party, the Golden Dawn, into Greek Parliament.

Speech, Media, and Riots

However, the question "Why do they hate us" engenders the logical flaw of lumping divergent factions into a single group. Commentators such as Sean Hannity are especially guilty of this logical defect, failing to remember that earlier this summer Libyans elected a secular government and that it was a group of young Libyan men that rescued a still-living Ambassador Stevens from the wreckage in order to deliver him to a hospital in Benghazi.

Not only is there no single "them," however, but there is no single "us." Lumping Americans or Westerners together, as done by both Western and Arab leaders, results in severe misconceptions of the functioning of free speech, the media, and law enforcement.

Though American lawyers seem to enjoy blithely extolling the benefits of their nation's First Amendment doctrine, the protestors and religious leaders calling for censure of the makers of The Innocence of Muslims are not as off-base as many would like to think. In both France and Germany, prison time and fines can result from speech or writing that "tend to incite racial hatred." The international criminal tribunal established by the United Nations in the wake of the Rwandan genocide prosecuted a great deal of individuals purely on the basis of their participation in radio stations or newspapers calling for genocidal actions. Mitt Romney himself has demanded the prosecution of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on this basis. Finally, in states such as New York, a felony conviction can be aggravated if there is evidence of the accused's "belief or perception" that the victim belonged to a minority group. In certain circumstances, it appears that the Western world has indeed chosen to persecute words and beliefs.

Secondly, there appears to be a failure among the Embassy protesters to grasp the extent of media privatization in the United States. But the widely held belief that The Innocence of Muslims was broadcast on "American state television" is not as ridiculous as it appears -- France, China, and Great Britain all have vibrant and powerful state-run television channels. It might also be beyond the comprehension of an unbelievably poor, non-Internet-savvy young Libyan man that more than 60 hours of video are uploaded to Youtube per minute, including a short amateur film that ridicules the prophet Mohammed.

Finally, violent protests are by no means foreign to Western nations. Paris burned in 2005, London was looted in 2011 , and every major city in the United States faced down Occupy Wall Street protestors during the whole of 2012, sometimes extremely violently. Anyone who's been to a football match in Ireland or Italy knows that it's time to leave the stadium when the shield-bearing riot police appear. The difference between these riots, however, and those outside the U.S. Embassy this week, is the theoretical presence of sufficient security forces. A war-torn state with little infrastructure such as Libya may fail to provide such security, whereas French gendarmes can swarm a street within minutes. Somewhere in-between, Yemeni security forces unleashed water cannons and warning shots to protect the US Embassy in Sanaa.

In light of these stark divisions within Western law and society, grouping either Arabs or Westerners into a single pronoun merely exacerbates the problem -- the very dehumanizing disenfranchisement the Arab Spring sought to eliminate. Perhaps more importantly, it is not the Arab Spring itself that will create functioning democracies; revolution tends to leave behind a void of properly functioning governments, economies, and rule of law.

It is therefore the ensuing battle of ideas that counts, and therein Americans have the duty to think before they speak, as it may very well be a long road to stability and peace. As Dean Acheson confirmed more than 40 years ago, "One would, perhaps, be less sure that independence was an end, rather than a beginning, of new troubles as tragic and bloody as any experienced in the past."