Commentary: From Russia with envy
NEW YORK -- It is bracing, not to mention annoying, laughable and obnoxious, to hear a White House press secretary lectured by a Russian journalist about the parameters of free expression American-style.
Adjectives sharpen their elbows as they vie to properly describe the Cold War-ish moment Thursday when Andrei Sitov of the state-run ITAR-Tass news agency challenged Robert Gibbs about the Tucson shootings.
According to Sitov, the assault was just an extension of American free expression, this time the "freedom of a deranged mind to react in a violent way."
Sitov prefaced his lecture with perfunctory condolences for the victims and families before opening his fire. From the outside, he said, the tragedy "does not seem all that incomprehensible."
"It's the reverse side of freedom. Unless you want restrictions, unless you want a bigger role for the government ..."
Audacity had few competitors on this particular day. Being lectured about American freedoms by a man whose own status among the living wouldn't be so assured under similar circumstances back home was rich in ironies. It was also horribly ill-timed. A couple of time zones away, Christina Taylor Green, the 9-year-old killed in the Tucson rampage, was being lowered into the ground by her devastated parents and community.
Gibbs soldiered through the awkward moment with grace, reminding Sitov that people had died, that lives had been rearranged, and that nothing about American values was consistent with the actions of the man accused of opening fire on citizens, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
"I think there's an investigation that's going to go on. ... I think as the president was clear last night, we may never know fully why or how," replied Gibbs. "We may never have an understanding of why, as the president said, in the dark recesses of someone's mind, a violent person's mind, do actions like this spring forward. I don't want to surmise or think in the future of what some of that might be."
Gibbs added: "There is nothing in the values of our country, there's nothing on the many laws on our books that would provide for somebody to impugn and impede on the very freedoms that you began with by exercising the actions that that individual took on that day. That is not American."
This may have been Gibbs' best moment, as well as much-needed articulation of the freedoms we do, indeed, take for granted. Perhaps the Russian was merely toying with Gibbs, testing the limits of freedoms that wouldn't be tolerated in his own country, where journalists and bloggers are frequently maimed or killed for speaking up.
Last November, for instance, Oleg Kashin, a reporter for the daily Kommersant and also a prominent blogger, suffered fractured legs, a damaged skull and broken fingers (at least one of which was nearly ripped off) for writing something "offensive." He recently had challenged destruction of the Khimki Forest for highway construction between Moscow and St. Petersburg, investigated an extremist organization and criticized a local governor.
Another Russian journalist suffered a similar fate in the spring of 2008. Mikhail Beketov, who sought to expose corruption behind the same road, was beaten and left unconscious and bleeding in front of his house. Like Kashin, he slipped into a coma. And, like Kashin, his fingers had been mangled. Three had to be amputated, along with a leg. Message: Never write again.
Even though President Dmitry Medvedev has vowed to punish Kashin's attackers, history suggests otherwise. Attacks on journalists in Russia are increasing and assailants rarely face justice, according to a report by Radio Free Europe. The Carnegie Center in Moscow reports that of 200 attacks on journalists and activists over the past 10 to 15 years, only a couple have resulted in productive investigations.
Such stories of dead and comatose journalists are surely fresh in the mind of one Andrei Sitov. Thus, perhaps he found some perverse release in speaking out against the freedoms he was enjoying in a place he obviously felt safe. Let's hope he gets the whole story straight: In this country, the freedom of a deranged mind to act in a violent way ends in a courtroom, and those who report corruption are protected even by the state they criticize.
Thanks to the values he critiqued, Sitov was permitted his say without repercussion or threat of violence. We wish him Godspeed and good luck when he returns to Russia to report that the demented behavior of one man is never an indictment of freedom -- and that most Americans understand the distinction.