The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech:
"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."
We used to enjoy this liberty, but it has not survived the War on
Terror. Terry Jones, who pastors a small, independent Pentecostal
church in Gainesville, Florida, announced that he intended to burn
the Koran as a protest on 9/11. This would normally be considered
'symbolic speech,' as when an anti-war protestor burns the American flag. The
fire-bug speaker intends to communicate aversion, contempt, disdain and
ill-will toward the object treated so disrespectfully. Arson can count as 'speech' under
the U.S. Constitution; so says the Supreme Court:
"The First Amendment literally forbids the abridgment only of 'speech,' but we
have long recognized that its protection does not end at the spoken
or written word. . .In deciding whether particular conduct possesses
sufficient communicative elements to bring the First Amendment into
play, we have asked whether '[a]n intent to convey a particularized
message was present, and [whether] the likelihood was great that the
message would be understood by those who viewed it.'" (Texas vs. Johnson).
Who can doubt the Muslims would have "understood" Pastor Jones'
message? That's the whole problem! The reaction of the U.S. Government to
Pastor Jones' stated plan has made clear that our leaders no longer intend to protect our right to religious
free speech. Whatever happened to the principle, 'I disagree with what you
say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it?'
Speech need not be eloquent, thoughtful, interesting or
persuasive to be protected by the First Amendment. An obscenity
scrawled across a T-shirt may be constitutionally
protected speech. The right to free speech is a right enjoyed by all
human persons by virtue of their creation; even the morons
who wear T-shirts with obscenities scrawled across them enjoy this
right. You do not have to be smart, articulate or creative to find shelter under the
protection of the U.S. Constitution. The principle of free speech was stated by Justices Douglas and Black in
dissent on Roth v. United States: "Government should be concerned
with antisocial conduct, not with utterances."
Had Pastor Jones possessed more rhetorical skill, he might have
thought up a demonstration more persuasive than burning a book,
which reminds people of the Nazis. What did the Nazis ever
contribute to the store of the world's literature? Their habit of
incinerating others' works only showed their own impotence.
Consequently people associate book-burning with the spread of
darkness and the extinguishing of light. Book-burners are like the
Vandals who swept across North Africa at the twilight of the classical
world, destroying but never creating. Or are they always?
Practitioners of magic burnt their books when they converted to
Christianity: "Many of them also which used curious arts brought their
books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of
them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver."
(Acts 19:19). The Talmud recommends burning books such as the New
Testament: "It was stated in the text: The blank spaces and the Books of
the Minim, we may not save them from a fire. R. Jose said: On weekdays one must
cut out the Divine Names which they contain, hide them, and burn the rest. R. Tarfon said: May I bury my son if I would not burn them together with their Divine Names if they came to my hand."
(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbath 16a). The pious government of Saudi Arabia
routinely confiscates and destroys Bibles unwary travellers carry into
that county, Wahhabism's show-place (Fox News, 'Saudi Arabian Government Confiscates Non-Islamic Religious Items That Enter Country,'
August 9, 2007).
German poet Heinrich Heine warned, "Those who begin by burning
books will end by burning people." The Inquisition had done both.
Why any speaker would voluntarily take upon himself so much negative
baggage: the Nazis and the Inquisition,— is unclear, but it's
also beside the point. Pastor Jones' proposed fiery negative review of the Koran posed no risk of putting that
perennial best-seller out of print. It is not so simple as to say,
only bad people burn books and thus the right so to do need not be
defended. Though by his own admission he has not read the Koran and
thus has nothing to contribute to the discussion, Pastor Jones
nevertheless has an opinion which he has a God-given right to
express. Books are not always and only good, they can also be evil, as 'Mein Kampf,'
'Protocols of the Elders of Zion,' and 'Atlas Shrugged;' to repudiate the content
of such a book by burning it would be more impressive if accompanied by the ability
to refute it, but even if unaccompanied, is still constitutionally protected free speech.
Does the Koran fall in with such company or does it belong in a better category?
Pastor Jones has an opinion, which the First Amendment allows him to
share with the world.
When the United States sent troops into Afghanistan, the intent
was not to offer these young people as hostages to Islamic extremists, so that if
any private American citizen offends in any way the sensibilities of
the Taliban, the threat to harm our hostages will be available at-the-ready to rein in the potential offender.
Rather, they were intended to transform Afghanistan. As a
Taliban-run, Islamist state, it had willingly harbored the
terrorists who attacked America on 9/11. In self-defense, the U.S.
proposed to change the regime and inaugurate freedom and
civilization in this dark, benighted land. Certainly this was a
kinder and gentler approach than carpet-bombing the place.
But sadly the Afghans turned out to have little use for liberty,
certainly not religious liberty, and the U.S. commander, General
David Petraeus, accordingly sought the lowest common denominator. Since
Americanizing Afghanistan had failed, why not Talibanize America
instead? They will not become like us, so we must become like them. Surely
if we can refrain from offending them, they will not
hurt us! Like the abused wife who curbs her tongue to avoid touching
off her volatile husband, we must self-censor to avoid offending the
mobs that gather on the Arab Street. These easily offended mobs are a
fixture of the nightly TV news; when their delicate sensibilities are
wounded, as they are by any hint of disagreement, they dance around like savages and burn the
American flag. Since we cannot make them civilized people, then we
will become dhimmis, and thus we will have peace. . .or so General
Petraeus promises. But will we have peace? We will have subservience, that
is certain, but peace can sometimes elude the grasp of those too
eager to clutch, and too ready to give away what should be held and
Even though it is not customary for American generals to
order private citizens about, drawing the line between which
Constitutional rights we may exercise and which we may not, General Petraeus explained to Pastor Jones that he must not burn the Koran,
or he would be responsible for the loss of American lives. The
General has very little concept of individual rights, as he places
very little value on individuals:
"But in this case, of course, it's
one of those — issues where one person's exercise of freedom of
expression jeopardizes the safety of tens of thousands of others —
hundreds of thousands of others, probably, around the world. And
could do — very significant damage to the image of the United
States around the world, as well." (ABC Interview with General David Petraeus, September 14, 2010,
So that "one person's exercise of freedom of expression" is out of the
question; the tens of thousands are simply worth more than he is, and they
want safety, not freedom. I wonder how someone like General Petraeus can
process the historic fact that the Founding Fathers of our country
willingly jeopardized their own safety and that of hundreds of
thousands of their compatriots to secure this right, now so lightly
and carelessly abandoned.
This military genius, who re-discovered the very old strategy of
buying peace by pushing large sums of money at one's adversaries,
and used it to great effect in Iraq, has brought his magic to
Afghanistan. We've given up any pretense that we can teach the Afghans to
respect "one person's exercise of freedom of expression,"—
and now we're not going to do that, either. In the face of the
chilling effect of massive governmental pressure, Pastor Jones
chickened out, as they had hoped. What is likely to come of this new
'don't make them angry' policy? Not peace and quiet, but ever-escalating demands to
surrender more and more of the freedom which is our birth-right. At what point
will we stop saying 'yes' to the generals and take a stand? When they burn Bibles?
Oh, they've done that. When they forbid American soldiers who are Christians from practicing their
religion? Oh, they've done that. When they start shutting down Christian web-sites, because Muslims
are offended? They've shut down the Dove Center's site already.
The Muslim world is so weak militarily, so fragmented
politically, and so backwards culturally, that thrusting the West
into a posture of dhimmitude is not a goal they could hope to attain
by main force. Many Muslims do not even want to achieve such a goal. But those
who do don't have to rely on their own efforts, when General Petraeus
is willing to do it for them. They can leverage General Petraeus' new,
modern, army of hostages, whose slogan might well be 'Please don't
hurt us,' willing to bear any burden, face any foe, and pay any
exorbitant sum of protection money demanded of them, all while cheerfully
surrendering the Constitutional rights of the folks back home.
Having abandoned the project of transforming Afghanistan into a land of
liberty, General Petraeus has 'gone native' and now seeks to impose
Taliban-type restrictions on the freedom of speech of Americans. Every
success emboldens them: we have surrendered the right to burn the
Koran, having earlier surrendered the right to draw funny pictures
of Mohammed. In truth, most people don't feel the need to exercise
those rights. Soon enough we will lose the right to say a critical
word about Mohammed. Will we ever take a stand? And if somewhere we must,
why not here? Our soldiers deserve better leadership, from men who remember what it is they are
Update: This perplexed and waffling 'pastor' has finally
made good on his plan, with the predictable result that innocent
people have been murdered by savage mobs. Also predictably, some
well-meaning but confused people have reasoned that, because these
uncivilized hordes have again made clear their willingness to commit murder, we must
surrender our liberties to them. Appeasement does not satisfy aggression, it
only feeds and encourages the aggressors. General Petraeus has also, true to
form, stomped once again upon the Establishment Clause, exclaiming: "We
condemn, in particular, the action of an individual in the United States
who recently burned the Holy Quran." (Obama Condemns Koran Burnings, as
Afghanistan Protests Spread, by Bryan Hood, April 3, 2011, The
Atlantic). It is not the business of the U.S. Government to "condemn" the religious perspectives
of its citizens, having no competence to discern between truth and
falsity in these matters.
Madalyn Murray O'Hair
This lady's contentious life and horrific death drew quite a lot
of attention. What Madalyn wanted to see in the world was ultimately
not compatible with the First Amendment: "In the same article Mother
was quoted as saying, 'I want to be able to walk down any street in
America and not see a cross or any other sign of religion.'"
(William Murray, My Life Without God, p. 91). Where was she coming from?