Libyan protesters burn a US flag.

Libyan protesters burn a US flag. Photo: AP

What the hell was that? In a perfect global storm: massive over-reach by crackpot Christian fundamentalists in California collided with what may have been a lucky break for the remnants of al-Qaeda's leadership hiding in the wilds of Pakistan - throwing the whole Arab Spring into question, upending the US presidential campaign and, leaving the rest of us gasping at the volatility of a region with too many naked flames.

Take out the tragic death of four American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, and there's an element of ''we've seen this before …''

Flashback to February, when 29 Afghans and six Americans were killed amid wild protests in Afghanistan after US troops burnt copies of the Koran. And to Mazar-e-Sharif in the north of Afghanistan, when seven United Nations staff died early last year as angry crowds demonstrated against a Florida pastor [Wayne Sapp], who thought it would be fun to stage a Koran burning.

The bodies of the four Americans killed in Benghazi arrive home.

The bodies of the four Americans killed in Benghazi arrive home. Photo: AP

As was the case then, the events of this week might have come and gone under the news radar, except they began in crucible countries of the Arab Spring - Egypt and Libya. And because the day on which the four diplomats died was the 11th anniversary of September 11, 2001. We're still groping for facts. But the grossly offensive mockery of the prophet Muhammad - rightly described by Hillary Clinton as ''disgusting and reprehensible'' - is being revealed as the deliberately provocative work of exiled Egyptian Christian Copts in the US and their deranged fellow travellers from the American Christian right.

Still unclear is the affiliation and agenda of those who murdered the four Americans.

Liberated Libya is a lawless jungle, where many people take their rocket launchers to the local shop or their favourite cafe.

Conceivably, the killers were random protesters who happened to have rockets in their pockets.

But coinciding with this rising head of steam across the region about the uploading on YouTube by the Christian crazies in California of an Arabic-language version of the calculated blasphemy of Islam, titled Innocence of Muslims, was a 9/11 anniversary internet video message from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, urging revenge for the death in a US drone-strike of his Libyan deputy - Abu Yahya al-Libi.

"Blood is calling, urging and inciting you to fight and kill the crusaders," he intones.

Do you see where this is going? Nothing excuses the killings in Libya; just as nothing excuses the too-simplistic riff by some American commentators saying how ungrateful these Egyptians and Libyan are, "after we liberated them".

But when for decades whole populations have been treated as an inconsequential mob, some of them can hardly be blamed for behaving as such when provoked.

Their social landscapes have been cruel, intellectually barren spaces, in which broken-down education and state censorship fostered ignorance and narrowness.

Mrs Clinton appeared be be aware of some of the realities of the region. She told reporters: "It is hard for some people to understand why the US cannot or does not just prevent [such videos] from ever seeing the light of day."

But the Secretary of State failed to join the dots, to sheet home some of the blame for that incomprehension to Washington and the other Western powers, which actively sponsored the dictatorial regimes, or were indifferent to their behaviour.

Those years of rigid censorship are why many in the Muslims world cannot conceive of a society in which the offending film could be produced without the blessing of an arm of government.

To throw off the yoke of state-sponsored ignorance and control without consequence is a big ask.

The naivety of some as they grappled for understanding was touching. There was genuine puzzlement on the part of one imam who spoke to The New York Times in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

"I ask the government of America," he said, "why did they allow a person to insult a man, Muhammad, when by insulting him they sadden the whole Muslim world, and create hatred towards Americans?"

More puzzling still for many in the region, will be the role and control of new media in the crisis. In defence of the First Amendment, Clinton said that it was 'impossible' to stop videos like the Californian creation, because to do so would be against the American value of freedom of expression.

First Amendment defenders were quick to articulate a genuine risk in responding to an outcry by simply pulling offensive material off the web. They call it a "hecklers' veto" – meaning that any group that can make enough noise or violence can have material pulled, which, in the US, would be a denial of its creator's First Amendment right.

Google, the owner of YouTube, acted on its own initiative to block access to the Californian blasphemy in Egypt and Libya, even though its offensiveness did not breach Google's guidelines on what it or is not appropriate to go up on YouTube.

Apparently, hate speech is offensive in Googleland only when directed at an individual; but when it is directed at the hundreds of millions of individuals who comprise the Islamic faith or any other religious or political movement, it's just fine.

There is a New-Age-meets-old-world dilemma in all of this. In the US, freedom of speech is an absolute – but when the internet can deliver hate as "free speech" beyond the environs of robust democracies and into fledging new democracies, there's going to be trouble.

As protests roiled other countries across the Islamic world on Thursday, Google sounded like a self-appointed new global State department when it let it be known that it was "closely monitoring the situation".

But it is not just the Muslims in the Third World who expect Google to be sensitive to their sensitivity.

Google had almost 2000 requests from government agencies last year, for more than 20,000 online items to be removed. One from Ottawa sought the removal of a video of a Canadian citizen urinating on his passport, before flushing it down the toilet; another, from Islamabad, wanted a satire on Pakistani public servants deleted. Both were refused.

Among the 2000-odd government requests were 279 from US agencies.

Others were from members of Congress for YouTube to pull jihadist videos that they argued incited terrorism. Google complied with some of those requests – which could cause some to ask if Innocence of Muslims ought not to be removed from the web entirely for precisely the same reason.