Who would have thought that a two line tweet could end a 20 year career in journalism? It surely wasn't CNN's senior Middle East editor Octavia Nasr, who was quickly dismissed after posting an "outrageous" comment on twitter following the passing of Lebanon's Ayatollah Fadlallah: "Sad to hear about the passing of Seyyed Mohammad Fadlallah...one of Hezbollah's Giants I respect a lot."
Nasr, a Lebanese Christian who was amongst the first women to ever interview Fadlallah immediately clarified that she did not intend to praise the cleric's life and work in toto, but rather simply call attention to the fact that he was held a "contrarian and pioneering stand among Shia clerics on woman's rights."
Although she scrambled to justify her comments about the cleric -- which were much less flattering than those offered by US allies Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki, Lebanese PM Sa'ad Hariri, or British Ambassador to Lebanon -- it wasn't enough for the bosses.
Given that Nasr lasted about three days and Helen Thomas about a week, some would say that she hung on pretty long. But more disturbing than the breakneck speed at which Nasr's case was open and shut is the chilling reality that, despite the principles of freedom of speech and thought that provide the foundation of our society dangerous redlines still exist.
Every society has them, intellectual Berlin Walls that keep bad ideas out along with the people who carry them. These are the cerebral pressure points of public discourse that create blind spots and fruitlessly mask deep fears. Ultimately such lines tell us much more about what kind of society we think we are a part of than the content of the issues themselves.
For most outsiders Ayatollah Fadlallah was just another bearded Muslim priest warped in from the medieval period hell bent on destroying western civilization. For Middle East insiders and even the mildly educated, he was a moderating force in whirlwind of extremism. For the Iranian regime he was a stubbornly independent risky ally too powerful to ignore. For the Lebanese across society he was a curb against that government's imperialism. To his clerical peers he flirted with modernity -- occupying himself with subjects like medical ethics and domestic violence (he told women to hit back... hard).
Nasr made the mistake of assuming her nuance would be understood in tweet or a blog. She also made the mistake of assuming that CNN would defend intelligence. Instead, when the website Honest Reporting, which describes itself as "an organization dedicated to defending Israel against prejudice in the Media" triggered an online blitz insinuating that Nasr praised Fadlallah's alleged Holocaust denial, suicide bombing, or questionable role in the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks, CNN sought it fit to rid itself of the problem outright. Instead of raising the public's capacity to digest the complexities of the world we live in, the network cowered to what Juan Cole has rightly called the "privatization of McCarthyism." Today Honest Reporting is claiming Nasr's outing as one of its biggest triumphs.
Since 9/11 America's redline has conflated terrorism and Israel's security, flattening all difference and particularity. As Stephan Walt and John Mearsheimer pointed out, this has dangerous consequences for both the implementation of policy and the policing of public thought (they were called anti-Semites for this). I don't think like others, who have responded to Nasr's sacking, that the Israeli lobby is to blame or that there is a Zionist cabal at work in the editing rooms of all major media outlets.
But I do think that an intellectual barricade has been created in our society that prevents any critical reflection on the complexities of Middle East politics and the rise of religious extremism, be it Islamic, Christian or Jewish. It is the same barricade that threatens the tenure of professors and blocks the work of journalists in the highest rank. Looking back, Nasr's case falls perfectly in line with the precedent created in the last few years. I doubt it will be the last.