A lec­ture Rus­sia wouldn’t per­mit

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - kath­leen­parker@wash­post.com

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 Ari­zona 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 ram­page just out­side Tuc­son, 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’s 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 con­struc­tion of 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 Dmit­ryMedvedev has vowed to pun­ish Kashin’s at­tack­ers, his­tory sug­gests that won’t hap­pen. 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 where 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.

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