Orbital Matters

Saturn Smith
APRIL 2, 2011 12:24PM

Terry Jones and the Consequences of Free Speech (Repost)

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Qu ran jmcphotos
The Holy Qu'ran at the Pergamom Museum, Berlin. Flickr/JMCPhotos/CC License.

What can one even say about this? "Afghans Angry Over Florida Koran Burning Kill U.N. Staff":

Stirred up by a trio of angry mullahs who urged them to avenge the burning of a Koran at a Florida church, thousands of protesters overran the compound of the United Nations in this northern Afghan city, killing at least 12 people, Afghan and United Nations officials said.

The dead included at least seven United Nations workers — four Nepalese guards and three Europeans from Romania, Sweden and Norway — according to United Nations officials in New York. One was a woman. Early reports, later denied by Afghan officials, said that at least two of the dead had been beheaded. Five Afghans were also killed.

And this:

[The minister who led the burning, Terry] Jones was unrepentant. “We must hold these countries and people accountable for what they have done as well as for any excuses they may use to promote their terrorist activities,” he said in a statement. “Islam is not a religion of peace. It is time that we call these people to accountability.”

Really? Really? Where is the religion of peace practiced, then? I'm confused. It would seem to me that someone who presides over practices that regularly spark violent protests by offending other religious adherents has no high ground upon which to stand. People have been killed. People who were working to make things better and more stable in a place that has a dire need of both of those things. These people were killed -- make no mistake -- because they were so foolish as to join an international governing body that has the bad luck, today, to be associated with the United States of America.

Let's think, for a moment, about tolerance and understanding. These two should go together. Just as we -- as thinking, rational, compassionate creatures -- should understand that not every evangelical Christian wants to burn the Koran, we should understand that not every Muslim wants to avenge that act violently. In both instances, a fringe group, fueled by fear, by ignorance, by misled fervor and a misunderstanding of religious tenets, has clothed itself in the garb of religious adherence to carry out terrifying acts.

Only one side, here, has broken the laws of its country, and that's the most difficult part of this situation. I deplore Mr. Jones's tactics, his decisions, his methods, nearly everything he stands for, but his actions are protected under the same laws that protect my speech on this web site. What those laws do not guarantee, of course, is safety from the consequences of your speech. If you yell "fire!" in a crowded theater, and there's no fire, and people die in the stampede, you are responsible.

If you light a fire, in a world that's not unlike a tinderbox, after you've been warned, explicitly, that your action may be destructive -- should there be legal consequences when the whole things sets ablaze? Let me quote, for a moment, from my own holy book and repeat the Schenck opinion of Oliver Wendall Holmes:

Words which, ordinarily and in many places, would be within the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment may become subject to prohibition when of such a nature and used in such circumstances a to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils which Congress has a right to prevent. The character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done.

Should Terry Jones and his 30-some congregants who participated in burning this book be punished under U.S. law? I don't have a legal answer to that. Should they be punishable? My answer is yes. At the very least, I hope the families and friends of those killed in today's attacks, who will be forever bereft, are never very far from Mr. Jones's mind.

We have a situation in which over a dozen people have died, between two years' worth of protests. Both sides are fueled by religious fervor. Neither side feels any need to "repent." Only one side, though, has recently been under investigation by the U.S. House for radicalism. Legislators, check your home states. Radical Christianity is costing us lives, too.

Embarrassing admin note: I tried to post this earlier, but apparently no text appeared. My apologies! I've been importing selected posts from my personal website over to OS, and I hadn't realized that the settings were bad. You can always find me, with words, at http://kepkanation.com. 

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What? And here I thought it was an April Fool's punk. Thoughtful post, as always, Saturn, and slightly more substantive than yesterday's, to be sure.
I messed up! Trying to play with too many gadgets at once, I think.
I don' think you can punish him under U.S. law as currently interpreted by the Supreme Court because of the flag burning issue and symbolic speech, but, maybe the Court will revist that issue now.
Terry Jones must have passed over the beginning verses of Matthew Chapter 7: 1 Judge not, that ye be not judged.
2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. [love the King James language]

No, Jones will never see the blood on his hands.
Saturn, I disagree with your conclusion. What they did is constitutionally protected speech, and as such it cannot and should not be a punishable act. Terry Jones and his congregation did not kill anyone. They did not incite the riots on the other side of the globe. The ones who incited those riots and who are directly responsible for killing innocent people are those who used this obscure event in a small Florida town to whip up a frenzy against any foreigner in their midst.

What Jones's congregation did was certainly provocative, and one could even have predicted it would incite some to commit acts of violence. However, their act in and of itself harmed no one. The harm was caused by violent, intolerant men professing fealty to Islam, utterly blind to the religious convictions and moral qualities of their victims. The ones who are responsible for killing innocents in this case are the killers, and no one but the killers.

We hear over and over again that Islam is a religion of peace, and I have no doubt for the vast majority of its practitioners that is true. However, there is unquestionably a small but very active minority within that religion that seems intent on proving Islam's critics correct. Jones and his congregation proclaim that Islam is, in fact, a violent religion. Too bad some reprehensible men in Afghanistan decided to give their view more credibility.
Procopius, I don't think they should be charged with murder; I don't think, really, there's any U.S. law they've broken that they could be charged with. The word "punishable" is perhaps not right: I wish they could be held "accountable." They didn't kill anyone with their own hands. They did, however, have very good signs, knowledge, and warnings that if they carried out this action, the consequences would be violent and costly, and it seems there should be some kind of... weight, something, that should drop here. Whether that's a punishment meted out through some form of lawsuit or a different kind of legal measure -- deeper scrutiny of Mr. Jones's congregations' actions? -- I do wish there was some action on this front. Then, of course, that stifles "free speech," which is ugly and at cross-purposes to the entire exercise of democracy and, sometimes, necessary.

The "right" to free speech isn't one that actively enables or compels people to say anything they want, at any time they want, regardless of consequences. I don't want the First Amendment to be used as a shield to protect people who say inciting things from the consequences they incite. It's a crime to threaten the life of the President of the United States for a reason -- should the First Amendment also protect that speech?

Don, it is related to flag burning, and as such it's very touchy for me. I think that's protected speech, too, but it doesn't exist in a vacuum either. If you burn a flag at a protest in the heat of the moment, you won't be arrested for the act, and that's absolutely right. If you burn a Koran in America, you won't be arrested for the act, and that's right, too. What you can be arrested for is doing something after you've been warned that it will cause a reaction. If you burn a flag in the middle of the commissary at Fort Bragg, and it results in a riot, both sides bear some responsibility for that violence: one for knowing what they might be starting, one fulfilling the ugly prediction.
Saturn, the irony is that one of the stated reasons Jones's congregation said they were going to burn a Koran is because, in their words, Islam is an evil, violent religion. One could argue that they were proven correct, at least with regard to a portion of Islam.

Yes, perhaps there should be consequences to what they did, but those consequences certainly should not be criminal. Nor do I believe anyone should be held accountable by law for the actions of someone else on the other side of the world. If someone wants to take the congregation to civil court, let them try. Personally, I believe the only consequences these people will and probably should suffer is roughly the same as what Kansas's Westboro Baptist congregation similarly experiences, the scorn and ridicule of the vast majority of the American populace.