Koran Burning, Afghanistan Killing, and What Should Be Unnecessary Defense of the First Amendment

“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.

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10 Responses to Koran Burning, Afghanistan Killing, and What Should Be Unnecessary Defense of the First Amendment

  1. Paul Grubbs says:

    This is equivalent to beheading a man for farting. Shall we pass a law forbidding beans? Not a bad idea since this would also help with carbon gas pollution and global warming which has more dire consequences than a little smoke and a few deaths. I find it very strange that folks of my generation who protested against Viet Nam and “the establishment” with vile insults, flag burnings, and civil disobedience on the basis of our constitutional rights are now demanding that these same privileges be now restricted in the interest of peace and civility.

    Can you say hypocrite? Or is that restricted too?

    • Nice nod to the Sixties Paul. That’s exactly the point — right or left — it’s protected, and that’s never (or should never be) in question. The only question is what we do with controversies in real time, how we respond as people, what we actually do that best vindicates our traditions of inclusiveness and liberty. The traditional First Amendment principle — the best response to pernicious speech is more speech, not repression of speech — is still the best.

  2. jeff veazey says:

    Ken- I have not thought this through but can’t resist the urge to just fire from the hip before heading out into the world of traffic, spill proof mugs and courts. Perhaps it is time to rethink what defines speech and what constitutes freedom. The old axiom that you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater comes to mind. Perhaps the burning of the Koran is not speech. Perhaps the freedom of speech does not imply the freedom to do it at any time or place and in any manner we deem appropriate. It wasn’t the First Amendment but rather the Supremes who extended speech to acts. Maybe the Court got the flag burning cases wrong. I don’t think so. However, we have known for some time that insult or perceived insult of Islam or the Koran can inspire violence, much like a stampede in a theater is not rational when there is no smoke, no alarm and no fire, it certainly is not impossible that controlling the behavior of the lunatic fringe is within the intentions of the framers. The kooks in Florida could not claim that they did not understand their actions could cause violence against innocents or how badly the vast majority of Americans did not want them to burn the Koran. Wasn’t the mere threat to burn the Koran enough of a statement to express their twisted beliefs. Needless to say it should be and is a crime to incite people with words to commit murder. The Klan / Aryan Nation cases come to mind. Why can’t the idiot “preacher” just get a blog or write a letter to the editor? Then he would have his freedom and no one would read or listen.

    • You’re teeing up the respective camps perfectly Jeff. But a rethinking, along the lines you tentatively suggest, would be devastating to freedom in my opinion. The judicial decision to include within the ambit of “speech” various symbolic actions not only avoided hopelessly complex arguments over symbol versus speech, but consecrated the real freedom of expression — by symbol or speech. Flag burning, draft-card burning, Bible burning, Koran burning, Bush or Obama in effigy burning — we can loathe any or all of those, but we cannot declare them illegal without fundamentally altering our identity as Americans committed to free expression. These “exceptions” would make the rule a vastly lesser thing, an invitation to endless debate over what might be offensive to some, and thereby shift the presumption away from the simplest and most elegant and powerful formula of human freedom in history: the antidote to offensive speech is more speech, not repression of speech.

      Is there an Islam carve-out? Should we re-think certain constitutional doctrines based upon Muslim sensitivities? Not unless we wish to heap condescending disrespect upon Islam. I’ve written before — in fact when Terry Jones first teed up his Koran-burning nonsense — that Islam is an adult religion. It needs no special solicitude. Muslims, as a group, are just as capable as adherents of any other religion of weathering insult. It’s what happens in the perpetual jostling of religious, somewhat-religious, and secular sensibilities. The fact that some Muslims behave badly in response to perceived insult has nothing whatever to do with traditional liberties protecting bad-mouthing, and everything to do with Muslim communities promoting the understanding that every other religion has been obliged to promote: we are larger than the haters who insult us, and need no recourse against them.

  3. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    I was grimacing at Paul (no disrespect intended), clapping for Jeff, and then I sat down after I read your response, Kendrick. As much as I want someone to slap Terry Jones upside his head, I can’t support denying freedom of speech just because the outcome of its expression is heinous. Unless a person’s expression directly endangers another individual, it’s not reasonable or practical to have our Supreme Court expend the energy in parsing words and analyzing incidents. What people will do in the exercise of their free speech runs the gamut of the inane and innocuous to the downright destructive. But Kendrick, you’re right. The expression didn’t cause the murders. Murderers wait for a chance to do their deeds–often not needing much provocation at all. Perhaps controlling the behavior of the lunatic fringe simply comes down to their very vocal shaming and condemnation by rational people.

    • Very well stated SDS. I agree absolutely. And there is indeed very vocal shaming and condemnation occurring. It probably won’t stop Jones from some new attention-seeking nonsense — but it will unite all the rest of us around propositions of civility and respect, and our communities will be richer for that.

  4. Ben Dor says:

    Regarding your article: Koran Burning, Afghanistan Killing

    For anyone to truly understand Islam, I suggest you read the following book: The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism by Prof’ Andrew Bostom.

    Only then you will understand the true nature of Islam.

    I also suggest you read articles from Amil Imani about Islam.

    I believe that right now expressing your disgust with these actions will do nothing to persuade Muslims from their goal: Controlling the world under Islam.

  5. Lou says:

    If I’m reading this right, I think some are suggesting that speech protections should be tailored according to the predictable response. Wouldn’t that put the scope of speech protections in the hands of the would-be responders?

    • Yes, Lou, that nicely, and more elegantly than I did, makes my point above — that a jurisprudence of “exceptions” based upon offense (something closer to European and Canadian models) would embroil us in hopelessly protracted legal battles over the propriety and authenticity of the “offense,” and ultimately chill a great deal more speech than just the really ugly stuff we all know we dislike.

  6. Paul Grubbs says:

    Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Now it is my turn to grimace as i ponder the far reaching consequences of limiting freedom of speech and expression. What is offensive to some is art to another. Books, movies, songs, paintings, cartoons, crucifixes in urine, etc would need the stamp of approval from EVERYONE!

    Radical Muslims are clearly indoctrinated to respond to offensive behavior with violence. To expect them to do anything less is dangerous. Muslims of moderate temperament must police their own if there is any hope of peace and freedom. I have little faith that this will ever happen. I am a Christian, a good example of a bad example, and I cringe at how myself and/or others can corrupt the message of Jesus Christ by our words and deeds. The underlying question should be asked. How did this hillbilly nut job garner so much power through our media? I suspect that there are more than a few who delighted in presenting Christ through such an evil medium. Like Karzai, blood is on their hands as well.

    Personally, I have moved away from humanitarian efforts in countries that have a significant population that views America as The Great Satan. I reserve my right to “take out” individuals that bully others under the pretext of politics or religion or any other “admirable” cause. So many bullies, so little time.

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