Saturday, September 11, 2010


Though it now appears the Rev. Terry Jones will not be burning Korans on 9-11 this year, it seems certain some other loony will. So there's that, at least.

The sad part of the story is the utterly predictable reaction from President Obama, Petreus, Gates, and all the others who are more caring and understanding and nuanced than the rest of us slobs. It will only endanger our troops, we are told. It will serve as the best recruiting tool al-Qaeda ever had. I wonder if anyone ever advised Roosevelt not to annoy the Nazis, or kill them, since that would only help them recruit more Nazis. What was FDR thinking, I wonder, when he challenged Americans to carry our values across the sea and crush the fascists? What was Churchill thinking when he did the same for the British? Didn't they realize it would only make them hate us more?

This is the Danish cartoon fiasco all over again. Six months after the satirical Muhammed cartoons were published, a group of jihadi-minded imams spread out across the Middle East and told the faithful to be outraged. They even added a couple of especially vicious cartoons that weren't in the original collection, just to gin up the crowd. And they succeeded. Riots ensued. Innocents were killed. And unfortunately, the West cowered in fear. Western governments (including ours) made conciliatory statements about how offensive it all was. At the moment that every newspaper in Europe, the US and Canada should have published all the cartoons on their front pages, none did. Later, the Yale University Press published a dusty, academic analysis of the phenomenon, but WOULD NOT PUBLISH THE CARTOONS THEMSELVES IN THE BOOK. It would have been too insensitive or something.

And yet, though Western governments and journalists gave in to the rage of the offended, did the rage subside? Of course not. Instead, the Western reaction was universally viewed as a sign of weakness, which it was. Those who wish to spread Sharia law across the world, with its stonings and honor killings and amputations, were only encouraged. It confirmed their charge that we in the West don't really believe in anything. And now the retreat from our most basic freedoms has become a reflex. One goofball in Florida announces he going to burn a Koran on 9-11, reports of Middle Eastern rage appear on the cable stations, and the President of the United States mobilizes his entire PR apparatus to silence Rev. Jones and protect the delicate sensitivities of the Muslim world.

(Meanwhile, in a story you may have missed, the US Army in Afghanistan has burned thousands of Bibles sent there for missionary work. Might offend the locals, you see.)

This was a teaching moment that has now been completely lost, and it has been lost because our president does not share, or even understand, certain basic American values. A president who did understand them would have issued the following statement:

“News has now spread around the world that a silly man in Florida is going to burn a Koran on the ninth anniversary of the horrific terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 In some nations, there have already been riots over this incident, and more are threatened. There appears to be a sense in some places that the United States government should stop this man, or that I should stop him, or somebody should. Thus, I am speaking today to explain the official US government position, and my personal position, on this matter.
“Neither I nor the government has any power to prevent him from burning a Koran, and I personally have no desire to. The Reverend Jones, by destroying Islam's holy book, is expressing his opinion that the Koran, and the entire religion of Islam, is the work of Satan. In America, every person has a right to express his opinion, and no one can legally stop him. We are a free country, and this is one of our most cherished freedoms. Personally, I believe that every person in every country should enjoy this freedom.
“Under our law, it does not matter that many people will be offended by Rev. Jones's action, or even enraged by it. In fact, our Supreme Court has declared on many occasions that offensive or hateful speech is more deserving of legal protection than speech that offends no one because offensive speech is where our principles are tested. We believe that if offensive speech can be suppressed, then no speech is safe.
“We have one man in Florida who plans to express his hatred of Islam. Other Americans have burned Bibles or desecrated other items revered by Christians because they hate Christianity. Still others have burned the American flag, either because they hate America or because they hate some policy America is pursuing. Some people hate me. They say terrible things about me, call me names, burn my image, or paint a Hitler mustache on my picture. I don't enjoy it when hateful speech is directed at me, but I would never try to stop it. The right to speak, to express one's opinion, is granted to every person by God, and no government anywhere should have the power to take it away.”

And the result would be? Well, there would probably be riots in Karachi, but there have already been riots in Karachi, and no Korans have been burned yet. But if an American president were to explain our values forthrightly, and without apology, it would be harder for the jihadis to build a mob the next time someone mocks Muhammed or burns a Koran or accidentally renders an insult to the faithful. There is a lesson to be taught in these situations, a lesson in the inalienable rights of man, and it is deplorable that Western leaders, Obama included, have forgotten how to articulate it.

By recognizing the outrage and the violence as legitimate, Western leaders also ignore the hundreds of millions of Muslims in the world who would like to live in free societies where individuals are permitted to speak their minds. We tend to forget that the radicals and jihadis are a small minority of Muslims worldwide, but it's easy to do that when the radicals and jihadis are the only ones we ever see on CNN, and the only ones Western leaders seem to care about. How many times have we all wondered: “Where are the 'moderate Muslims'? Why don't they stand up against the fundamentalists and the murderers in their midst?” The answer is fear. They see no one in the West who cares about their desire for freedom, so they are on their own in a dangerous world. A consistent voice in the West for basic principles of human rights would go a long way toward delegitimizing the radicals and emboldening the freedom-fighters. Whatever your theory on the fall of the Soviet Union, it's hard to deny that the moral condemnation of communism by John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had something to do with it. The war against the jihadis is also an ideological battle, but our leaders are unwilling, or unable, to defend our values.

Put more simply, there is no other option. A nation cannot have free speech if it attempts to appease or sympathize with a violent and intolerant rabble, or impose a legal standard of civility on expression. This concept is so central to First Amendment jurisprudence that it has a name: “The Heckler's Veto.”

In the case of Terminiello v. Chicago, in 1949, a lecturer was arrested for a breach of the peace when an angry crowd gathered outside the auditorium where he was speaking. The trial judge told the jury that under a Chicago ordinance, it could convict the speaker if he had engaged in speech that “stirs the public to anger, invites dispute, brings about a condition of unrest or creates a disturbance….” On review, the US Supreme Court reversed the conviction and ruled the ordinance unconstitutional. Speech is protected, the Court wrote, BECAUSE “it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”

The Court explained that though there may be reasons to limit speech in some circumstances, the offensive or hateful character of the speech itself can never be used to justify censorship. To limit offensive speech because it offends is to give the heckler a veto over speech that annoys him. In fact, it encourages the heckler to become violent and breach the peace, because then the speaker will be punished. The rule of Terminiello is that we punish the violent heckler, but never the speaker.

Once you start punishing speech because it offends, eventually you grant control of all discourse to the most sensitive, irrational and violent elements in society. Opening this door leads swiftly to repression. Though you begin by punishing nazis and racists, you move swiftly to jailing artists like Andres Serrano (“Piss Christ”) and newspaper editors who publish Muhammed cartoons. Ultimately, you lock up the guy who says, “Ya know, women can do a lot of things, but I still think the best firefighters are men.”

The Reverend Terry Jones and his imitators are no more than pimples on the body politic, and it is pathetic that our president would use this incident to express his sympathies with the manufactured rage-a-paloosa shows now playing across the Middle East. By declaring that the rage is legitimate, of course, he also elevates Jones to a position of significance that the good reverend does not deserve. The only sensible, and morally responsible, stance for an American president is to politely lampoon Rev. Jones as a uniquely American sort of moron and diplomatically mock the rioters for taking him seriously. It's appalling that President Obama would not recognize this as an opportunity to explain to the world what America is all about, and how most of us really feel about the made-for-TV outrage. “In God We Trust” may be the official motto of the USA, but “F*** 'Em If They Can't Take A Joke” is surely the unofficial one.