Last year Terry Jones gained international attention by threatening to burn the Koran. The situation seemed to have been resolved with Jones’ decision not to burn any books. However, he and some of his fellows went through with the burning on March 20, 2011. While most of the world did not react to this event, some people in Afghanistan and Pakistan reacted quite strongly. In the case of Afghanistan, the burning led to riots. The first of these resulted in the deaths of seven U.N. workers (none of whom were Americans) and four demonstrators. More deaths have followed and it seems likely that even more people will die before the event plays out.
One aspect of this incident is that some of the rioters are obviously willing to murder people who have no connection whatsoever to the burning of the Koran. As such, it seems rather difficult for them to claim that they are acting on the basis of any meaningful concept of justice. After all, justice seems to require distinguishing between those who are accountable and those who are not accountable. There is, of course, also the rather important matter of whether or not the burning of a book warrants death.
Interestingly enough, an unwillingness (or inability) to distinguish between people is something that is often seen among Americans who are hostile to Islam and regard all Muslims as terrorists (or potential terrorists). This unwillingness to make such distinctions seems to be a significant factor in the mindsets of such people. Whether this is an effect of their hatred or a contributory cause (or both) is something that remains to be determined.
Rather than focus on this matter, however, I will instead focus on the American reaction to the incidents and its repercussions.
On view, put forth by Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, is that while the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, assembly and religion, Americans should exercise these rights responsibly.
This view seems to be quite reasonable. After all, the constitution is rather clear about the legal rights presented in the First Amendment and the rulings of the Supreme Court have been consistently in favor of free speech, even when such speech does have negative consequences.
An obvious response to this view is that not all speech is protected nor should it be. To use the classic example, people do not have the legal (or moral) right to yell “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. This is because their speech would cause direct harm under reasonable legal and moral views of causation (sine qua non and proximate causation).
In the case of Jones’ burning the Koran, his expression seems to have caused Afghans to attack and kill people. Given this sort of harm, Jones’ actions should not be considered legally protected and should also be regarded as morally unacceptable. After all, his actions would seem to have caused needless and wrongful harm to others.
The easy and obvious reply to this is that there is a relevant difference between the theater example and the Koran burning. In the case of the person yelling fire, the action is a deceit (there is no fire) and it is reasonable to expect people to try to escape a building that is supposed to be on fire. It is also reasonable to expect that people could be injured during the escape attempt. As such, there seems to be a rather direct link between the yelling of “fire”and the harm that would result.
In the case of burning the Koran, the link seems to be more indirect. The book is burned, people learn about it, they become angry, they riot, they go looking for Americans to kill, they do not find Americans so they attack U.N. workers and kill them. In this scenario, the causal link seems to be such that Jones’ moral and legal culpability is very limited. In fact, he seems to have no legal culpability whatsoever.
To use an analogy, if I were to criticize the views of a British colleague in a spiteful manner and burn their book and they responded by going and punching a Canadian philosopher, then I would hardly be responsible for those actions. Even if I knew that they were hot tempered and likely to do this, I cannot be held accountable for their lack of self control.
It might be replied that if someone knows that other people will do harmful things if provoked by such words or deeds, then they should not take that action. However, this makes free expression a hostage to whoever is willing to respond with violent or destructive actions when they hear of things they do not like. This will clearly not do.
Naturally, there can be pragmatic grounds for engaging in some common sense restraint and moral arguments can be made as to why, on the basis of the consequences, people should not say or do certain things that might provoke people to irrational acts of murder and destruction. As a friend of mine has said, “it is sometimes best not to provoke the crazy people.”
A second view is that although the constitution is rather clear about the matter of freedom of expression, exceptions can be made in times of war. This view was put forth by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who spoke on Face the Nation.
“I wish we could find some way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we are in a war. During World War II, you had limits on what you could say if it would inspire the enemy. So, burning the Quran is a terrible thing, but it doesn’t justify killing someone. Burning a Bible would be a terrible thing, but it doesn’t justify murder.”
I will begin by agreeing with the second part of Graham’s remarks: burning a religious book does not justify killing people. However, I do have some concerns about the first part of his remarks.
He begins by noting that while free speech is a great idea (something people always say before going on to say that it needs to be limited), the fact that we are at war justifies restricting it. He notes that this was practiced in WWII and he presumably thinks that a similar approach should be taken today.
On the one hand, I can see the appeal of this approach. After all, in times of war it does make sense to limit what people can say. For example, it seems acceptable to prevent citizens from freely talking about secret military plans or revealing the names and locations of agents in enemy territory. However, these sorts of things seem to be already covered by existing laws and it seems easy enough to make moral arguments against acts that would seem to be cases of potential treason.
On the other hand, this approach does have some problems. First, we now seem to always be at war with no clear end (or even a clear definition of what would count as an end) in sight. As such, it seems like a less than great idea to use the war justification. After all, since being always at war is the new normal, this would seem to mean that such limits would be in place for the foreseeable future. Second, while we are at war, the war (three of them, actually) seem to be rather different from WWII in ways that might have justified restrictions in WWII but do not justify them now. Third, there is also the obvious question as to whether such limits were justified during WWII. After all, if they are being used to justify limits now, it must be shown that they justified limits then. Fourth, there seems to be the rather obvious problem that restricting expression that provokes “the enemy” would seem to justify imposing a broad range of restrictions. Under this approach, if the announcement that the United States was going to take an action in the Middle East led to a violent response, then the persons or persons making the announcement (perhaps the president or his press secretary) would have to be held accountable. Or, to use another example, if some people rioted in Afghanistan and said it was because American women are allowed to express opinions in public, then American women would need to be held accountable. This seems to be clearly absurd.
In light of the above, while I believe that Jones’ should not have burned the Koran, I also hold that there should be no legal restrictions placed on such actions.