Last week, a publicity seeking pastor from Florida held a ritual Qu’ran burning. The first time he threatened to do this, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General David Petraeus implored him not to, with Petraeus saying he was worried that it could “could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort.”
The warning from Gates and Petraeus made me uncomfortable — I don’t like the idea of top government officials telling private citizens, even one as unbalanced as this Florida pastor, what to do. But the media was far more responsible this time around then it had been last time — rather than lavish press on this attention seeker, the incident went largely ignored in the national press until Afghan President Hamid Karzai denounced the incident and called for the pastor to be “brought to justice.” Following Karzai’s announcement, riots and violence erupted all over the country, leading to the deaths of at least 20 people so far.
On Face the Nation this weekend, Harry Reid suggested that Congress was “taking a look” at the incident, and Reid himself has introduced a resolution condemning the incident. Senator Lindsey Graham went farther, implying there should be legal limits on speech in wartime:
BOB SCHIEFFER: Is there anything that actually can be done along this line?
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: You know I wish we could find some way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea but we’re in a war. During World War II, you had limits on what you could say if it would inspire the enemy. So burning a Koran is a terrible thing. But it doesn’t justify killing someone. Burning a bible would be a terrible thing but it doesn’t justify murder. But having said that, any time we can push back here in America against actions like this that put our troops at risk we ought to do it. So I look forward to working with Senator Kerry and Reid and others to condemn this, condemn violence all over the world based in the name of religion. But General Petraeus understands better than anybody else in America what happens when something like this is done in our country. And he was right to condemn it. And I think Congress would be right to reinforce what General Petraeus said.
Graham’s reaction — the response to a security threat is to curtail individual freedoms — is the most frustrating response imaginable, but it’s typical of the way the U.S. has responded to terrorism after 9/11. But while other mistakes made in the name of security that have stoked outrage in the Muslim world, such as Gitmo or legalizing torture, required an adjustment of U.S. policy, the fact is that the U.S. has all the laws against Qu’ran burning it needs: Zero. The adjustment that needs to be made here is among those who would react to hateful speech with violence. To abandon fundamental freedoms in the fight against terrorism is to abandon the very things the U.S. is supposed to be defending.
We shouldn’t make the mistake of lionizing this Florida pastor as a hero for free speech. This incident has elements that recall the riots and death threats that followed a Danish newspaper’s publication of the prophet Muhammad that many Muslims saw as offensive. As then, the ultimate blame for the violence rests more with the perpetrators than the provocateurs.
Still, the original Mohammed cartoon incident, and the subsequent “Draw Mohammed Day,” events that arose in solidarity, weren’t empty provocations. They were meant to emphasize that speech, even offensive or reprehensible speech, must always be protected. Terry Jones’ protest, on the other hand, is nothing more than a public cry for attention by someone who holds Muslims in contempt. As someone who was warned of the potential consequences of his actions, he bears some measure of responsibility for the results, although it’s unclear if there’s any way to hold him legally accountable, and I’d probably be against it if there were.
The Supreme Court recently dealt with this question in the case involving the homophobic protests staged by the Westboro Baptist Church at the funerals of U.S. servicemembers. One does not lose the right to free speech simply by using that right in a reprehensible fashion — otherwise the entire concept would be meaningless. Because this incident indirectly lead to people actually dying rather than simply hurt feelings, it may seem like a more difficult question. But it’s not.