Koran Burning, Afghanistan Killing, and What Should Be Unnecessary Defense of the First Amendment
April 6, 2011 10 Comments
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
–First Amendment to the United States Constitution, adopted December 15, 1791
The First Amendment’s muscular protection of free speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition is a singular American contribution to political philosophy. Still, over two centuries after enactment of the First Amendment, its core values get little more than lip service in countries governing the substantial majority of the world’s population. Over 70% of people live in countries that do not protect basic religious freedoms.
Americans of all political stripes take justifiable pride in our First Amendment tradition. Even when we wince at the newest cringe-inducing “free” expression — because sometimes freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose — Americans understand at the core of our civic beings that these liberties are our bedrock as a nation, the basis upon which a people of unprecedented diversity share and celebrate a political culture. It’s part of our political dance.
Yes, I’m taking some time with the civics cheerleading, because I want to get you fully prepped for these disturbing reactions by United States Senators to the Koran-burning silliness in Florida:
Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill): “I understand … the First Amendment. But I want to tell you, this pastor with his publicity stunt with the Koran unfortunately endangers the lives of our troops and the citizens of this country and a lot of innocent people.”
And worse. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC): “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 do if it inspired the enemy.”
“I understand the First Amendment, but…”? “Free speech is a great idea, but…”?
No. This bare sufferance of the First Amendment is constitutionally tone-deaf — a frank embarrassment coming from our United States Senate. It is “First Amendment, and…” not “First Amendment, but…”
It is incontestable, as I’ve written, that the Koran-burning was stupid and bigoted, and incontestable that the murderous Afghani riots are worse than stupid and bigoted — they are killing innocent people. It is also fair to say, through a chain of causation including President Karzai, that the Koran-burning “caused” protests — but not that the Koran burning “caused” murder. The murderers made that extreme and abominable decision all on their own, as free moral agents.
And that is the very essence of First Amendment freedom. We do not question the basic liberty when some react extremely. To the contrary, we stay focused: we condemn the particular exercise of the liberty where it warrants, and we condemn the overreaction to it without questioning the liberty value itself. We do not question free speech liberty or suggest an overriding danger or a spurious “moral equivalency” based upon abominable or murderous reactions to stupid speech. If a danger exceeding the stupidity of the speech arises, it is because free moral agents deliberately choose to create the danger — and perhaps it is best we see that choice and call it what it is.
Several innocent people are dead in Afghanistan. Not merely guilty of stupid speech. Dead. If we shy away from the difference, if we labor to focus overmuch on the costs of free speech, then we shy away from our core values.