On Wednesday, September 8th, US President Barack Obama, in a speech to the white house press corps, asserted his hope for Florida Pastor Terry Jones would reconsider his planned stunt of burning a Koran to protest 9/11. The President argued that what Mr. Jones was planning to do stood against everything the US stands for and that he would be putting service men and women abroad in danger. Mr. Jones ended up relenting, and did not burn any Korans on September 11th, presumably because of the president’s gesture, but also because he was told (falsely) that a planned mosque would not be built near the 9/11 attack site in New York. There has been plenty of heated debate concerning whether or not this individual in Florida should have be allowed to protest in a way he saw fit, how soldiers are effected by discussions at home and abroad, and what our responsibilities as US citizens are. It is a sticky topic because while most people want to insure the freedom to speak our minds, we also want to declare our thoughts on the insane pastor’s concept of protest. The two are intertwined, and separating the two is tricky business. Here we go!
Ignoring the inane law of polluting by unlawfully burning paper (this was brought up as the legal reason Mr. Jones and his congregation shouldn’t burn the books), there are no laws that prevent anyone from burning any book as a sign of protest. Protesting is protected speech and so long as the protest isn’t obscene, seditious, or the direct, legal equivalent of physical action (IE screaming “Fire!” in a crowded theater) it is the right of any US citizen to speak on any subject they want. And while this freedom exists, it does not give people free license slander or create libelous speech (again, this falls under speech-as-action). Not every person in the country agrees with everything that is said, and for a good reasons. Democrats protest against bills that enable large corporations to pollute, and republican protest, well, about pretty much everything.
Other people protesting and speaking freely are Neo-Nazis staging marches, Baptist congregations shouting slurs at the funerals of homosexual soldiers, and the pastors of tiny, southern churches burning the Koran. The thought, according to Thomas Jefferson, is democracy is a conversation and can only function when differing sides are informed. People being kept from speaking because their opinions are the minority results in many disenfranchised citizens looking to take more dramatic steps to make themselves heard. 99% of American citizens (myself included) would think the idea of burning a Koran despicable and completely out-of-touch with anything that could even remotely be considered a positive act of protest. It could be held up as a good example of something that would be universally agreed to by the population at large. However, 1 in 4 Americans think that President Barack Obama (a practicing protestant Christian) is a Muslim. So, maybe I am on the wrong side of history, and when these people write the history books they may call this pastor a hero and Obama a Muslim. Maybe if these people keep repeating the lie to themselves, it will be remembered as fact. Who knows? And that’s the point. While it’s despicable to lie and make demonstrably false statements, it’s better for them to be vetting in public and be open to debate rather than being hushed and allowed to fester.
What is fundamentally against American ideals (as established in the Enlightenment principles of the constitution) is when citizens are not only not being allowed to express their opinions, but a forced to endure a President reminding them that they shouldn’t speak their mind out of fear of what others may think or do as a response. That’s the whole point behind the right of freedom of speech! A person can speak their mind without fear being killed for doing so. This begs the larger question of whether US citizens are allowed to behave in ways that are not only legal but strongly encouraged by our founders because enemies of the state threaten them with death.
And here I was thinking the role of the military is to defend American rights from others who would seek to undermine them through terror, intimidation, and acts of violence. US soldiers should not to be used to guilt US citizens into remaining quiet less they end up with blood on their hands. Sadly, this response really makes this insane pastor’s point: These people are so radical, that burning a book will insight them to violence, so don’t do it!
Many authors have commented on the fact that religious discussions are immune from public debate. If two coworkers disagree about the outcome of a sporting event or the results of a political race, it is culturally acceptable to discus, debate, and argue their individual point of view. However, when it comes to comparing aspects of different religions or their practices, a debater is treated as anathema. People who express belief in religious ideas are given a pass to instant credibility simply by virtue of holding these beliefs, beliefs that are immune from criticism. If a person is an active Muslim extremist who believes women to be chattel and followers of other religions should be executed, we hold that ideal in the silly realm of moral relativism and hand wave away criticisms by saying, “Oh that’s just their culture. It isn’t good or bad, it’s just different. Who are we to tell them how to behave?” So, when an arguably crazy pastor in Florida tells his congregation of fifty (!) that he will be burning the Koran to protest against the extremists who have a public agenda to take down this country, and to attack Muslims in general, it is not his fault that there will likely be protests and innocent deaths as a reaction.
He is well within his right as a full citizen of the United States to burn the Koran, the Bible, Whinny the Pooh, or the latest copy of People Magazine if he so chooses. The result of that would be many reasonably-minded Americans thinking (rightly) that he is a lunatic and other, less reasonably-minded people (whipped up into a frenzy by religious clerics and state-run news outlets) will likely riot and issue death threats. The responses of both groups of people are things that happen regardless if the person speaking has the foresight to anticipate it. In September of 2005 Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard published a cartoon depicting the prophet Mohammed with a bomb on his head. Up to that point, various other artists, writers, and performers had created similar, and in many arguable cases, more sacrilegious representations of the prophet Mohammed. The fact that this particular cartoon was the one piece of art chosen to be the focus of pent-up anti-Western sentiment wasn’t the fault of the author, the publisher, or the guy down the street. It is the fault of a fanatical movement that thinks a fair and reasonable response to burning a book or printing a cartoon is the death of the speaker and riots that result in several deaths of innocent bystanders. It may be the case that there is something fundamentally wrong with a reaction that cannot be brushed away with the blanket excuse of moral and cultural relativism. The reason there aren’t tens of thousands of US citizens calling for the head of this pastor or hundreds of dead bystanders, trampled to death in riots is the direct result of the right to speak to one’s mind. And while it is legal for the pastor to expound his own particular brand of hatred and intolerance it is also legal for everyone else in the country to call him out on it with words, not actions.
If these freedoms were to extend into some of the theocratic states such as Afghanistan and Iran, where their holy books establish a law that is, by definition, unassailable and absolutely correct, the radical fringe would not be allowed to make threats on the life of anyone who disagrees or cricisizes their political or religious stance. While death threats are a form of speech, they are not protected, as they act as direct incitements to violence. These people could rant and scream and protest their hatred of the man, his ideas, his congregation, and his penchant for grotesque blue blazers all day. They could scream it from the tops of minarets, on street corners, on web sites, or television broadcasts. Supporters of the pastor could rant and scream right back at them, saying such a reaction proves their point, and is hypocritical when one considers certain ideals of peace and tolerance upon which a handful of Islamic principles are based. The hope is somewhere in that discussion, there is something approaching the truth and a nominal state of peace. If it is allowed to be discovered through discussion (screaming, in this case) and not shut down by the Imam, President, or Cleric, there is at least a chance of it taking hold and changing the minds of the people.