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Koran Burning and Killing

This past week, a minister decided to, and then did, burn a copy of the koran. It was his copy, that he owned. I believe, although I have no proof, that he knew the burning would be provocative. I believe that he had reason to suspect that muslims would be offended and voice their displeasure. I am not certain that he anticipated the level of violence that erupted. I am certain that he did not expect that his actions would threaten the US constitution.

After the burning, the president, a high ranking general, and two US senators all castigated this minister, with some going as far as to suggest he had acted treasonously and that there might need to be limits on the first amendment during times of war.

Senator Lindsey Graham said: “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.” Notwithstanding the fact that we’re not really in a war, Graham’s impulse is scary. So is Senator Harry Reid’s. “Ten to 20 people have been killed,” Reid said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We’ll take a look at this of course. As to whether we need hearings or not, I don’t know.”

The Florida minister has done us a great service, I think, although not necessarily in the way he intended. He has reminded us all of the scope and intent of the first amendment, and he should be thanked for that. I have said many times that the first amendment wasn’t put there to protect daily pleasantries. It was put there to protect speech that was offensive, and unpleasant, and disruptive. And the minister’s book-burning episode was all three to a lot of people.

What I find disturbing is the rush to blame him for some deaths in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the middle east. Petraeus condemned him for putting the lives of soldiers in danger, while the Obama administration was a little more nuanced. After Obama publicly castigated the minister, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “One, we absolutely condemn the burning of a holy text. We think it’s un-American and inappropriate. Two, nothing justifies — absolutely nothing justifies the kind of violence and fatal violence that we saw that took the lives of workers at the United Nations in Mazar-i-Sharif — absolutely nothing.” Aside from the weasel-word “inappropriate,” the administration is clearly absolving the minister of any culpability for the deaths in the middle east.

And that’s as it should be. I get that the muslims are upset. I don’t care, but I understand it. After all, I was upset about Andres Serrano and Chris Ofili, but I got over it without burning anything, rioting, pillaging, or killing anyone. And both Serrano and Ofili made it a point to say they were being provocative and inflammatory. As a matter of fact, there were a couple of inconsequential threats made to them, but nothing of any substance, and they didn’t have to go into hiding, or stop being “artists.” Violence-prone packs of Christians did not roam the streets of Paris, or London, or Frankfurt, or Madrid, or New York calling for their heads..

And that is really the crux of the issue. When Jones burned the book, muslims rioted, burnt, and killed. They also put a fatwa on Jones’ head, ala Rushdie, to the tune of 2.2 million dollars. Some, quite a few, actually, apologists were blaming the deaths and the rioting on Jones. They were quick to say that he knew what would happen, and that he was trying to incite things. Maybe so. I don’t know him, so I can’t claim to know what he was thinking, although it was reported that he said he was trying to “stir the pot.”

But to suggest that the muslims who rioted and killed over a perceived slight were goaded into it, and that Jones bears any measure of responsibility, is to commit a fallacy that can be fatal to not only human life, but the life of our society as well. Suggesting that the muslims were driven to this violent excess is tantamount to saying that they lack full moral authority over their actions. This denies to muslims recognition of their full humanity, and reduces them to automatons, programmed to react with violence to every thing that offends them. The history of western civilization is one of exactly the opposite approach, ascribing to each actor the responsibility for their deeds.

And this is the difference between the two world views, the west on one hand, and the east on the other. The west, based on Judeo-Christian principles, believes that God imbued us all with free will, and we must make choices, and take personal responsibility for our actions. The muslim view is that allah is a capricious god and commands certain things, and that to do other than what allah commands results in eternal damnation. Islam rejects free will in the same way it rejects democracy and liberty.

It is a clear concept that people are responsible for their conduct. In this case, the people responsible for the deaths in the mid-east are the people who actually did the killing. Those who suggest otherwise are reducing the muslim world to little more than animals, incapable of acting rationally. Only if we hold them fully accountable can we be said to be treating them as equals. Jones may be wrong-headed, a poor Christian, thoughtless, and insensitive. But it does not make him responsible for what people half a world away do.

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