Today's wave of violence, likewise, owes much more to a bloody-minded realpolitik than to the madness of crowds. As The Washington Post's David Ignatius was among the first to point out, both the Egyptian and Libyan assaults look like premeditated challenges to those countries' ruling parties by more extreme Islamist factions: Salafist parties in Egypt and pro-Qaeda groups in Libya. (The fact that both attacks were timed to the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks should have been the first clue that this was something other than a spontaneous reaction to an offensive video.)
The choice of American targets wasn't incidental, obviously. The embassy and consulate attacks were "about us" in the sense that anti-Americanism remains a potent rallying point for popular discontent in the Islamic world. But they weren't about America's tolerance for offensive, antireligious speech. Once again, that was the pretext, but not the actual cause.
Just as it was largely pointless, then, for the politicians of 1989 to behave as if an apology from Rushdie himself might make the protests subside ("It's felt," he recalls his handlers telling him, "that you should do something to lower the temperature"), it's similarly pointless to behave as if a more restrictive YouTube policy or a more timely phone call from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the anti-Islam film's promoters might have saved us from an autumn of unrest.
What we're watching unfold in the post-Arab Spring Mideast is the kind of struggle for power that frequently takes place in a revolution's wake: between secular and fundamentalist forces in Benghazi, between the Muslim Brotherhood and its more-Islamist-than-thou rivals in Cairo, with similar forces contending for mastery from Tunisia to Yemen to the Muslim diaspora in Europe.
Navigating this landscape will require less naïveté than the Obama White House has displayed to date, and more finesse than a potential Romney administration seems to promise. But at the very least, it requires an accurate understanding of the crisis's roots, and a recognition that policing speech won't make our problems go away.
All this complaining and getting all prissy about it is bullshit. Those in leadership know it. And those who want to make them look weak know it as well. Anything further just plays to one side or the other.
My opinion is that civility equals strength.