On Qur’an Burning, Redux

A few months ago, I wrote briefly about an obscure Florida pastor who had the idea of burning a Qur’an. At the time he backed off under intense pressure, but later changed his mind and went through with it. This would have gone nowhere, except that some Islamic mullahs in Afghanistan (aided by Hamid Karzai, who cynically fanned the flames), incited their worshippers to frenzy. The mob proceeded to storm a U.N. compound, brutally killing a dozen U.N. employees. Protests and riots are still ongoing, and more people have been killed.

I deplore this violence, as any civilized person would. But I don’t believe that, just because bad things happened, there must have been a way to prevent them. Unfortunately, it seems that in this I part company with two U.S. senators who hinted that they were looking for a way to punish the book-burner (“Free speech is a great idea, but…”) Even more appallingly, the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, was quoted as follows:

“I don’t think we should be blaming any Afghan. We should be blaming the person who produced the news – the one who burned the Quran,” he said.

Reading sentiments like this, I feel like Greta Christina must have done when writing about Fred Phelps: I hate having to write this post. I hate having to defend this wannabe cult leader with delusions of grandeur who would, if he could, impose a theocracy scarcely distinguishable from the Taliban’s. I hate having to give more attention to someone who obviously has an unhealthy craving for it (which is why, you’ll notice, I’m not naming him in this post).

But First Amendment test cases rarely come about because of popular or nice people. If we don’t have the freedom to utter speech that annoys, upsets, even infuriates other people, then we don’t have free speech. The freedom to express only opinions that don’t make anyone upset isn’t worth defending.

I’ll grant that, very probably, the pastor staged the book-burning as a deliberate provocation, intending that something like this would happen. But however malicious his motives, his act was a nonviolent expression of opinion. He may have foreseen how Afghans would react, but he didn’t control how they would react. They could have marched in peaceful protest, as so many others throughout the Middle East have done, and put him to shame by claiming the moral high ground.

Instead, some of them exploded in unreasoning savagery, choosing to murder innocent people for the act of a deluded nobody half a world away. No destruction of ink and paper, regardless of how petty the motive, can ever justify or excuse the taking of human lives. Put the blame where it belongs! – on the mob that committed those murders, and on the insane religious beliefs that motivated them. These fanatics believe that human individuals, every one of them unique and irreplaceable, are less valuable than one particular copy of a mass-produced book. Isn’t that belief more deserving of condemnation than anything an attention-seeking ignoramus has done?

Even if you grant that the Qur’an burning was deplorable and should be punished, what principle could we invoke to justify it that wouldn’t also sweep up a vast number of other speech acts? What rule could we make that wouldn’t be open to endless abuse? Consider some parallel cases:

There will always be thugs who want to impose their beliefs by force, and who will lash out at the slightest provocation. But we as a society can’t limit permissible speech to only those messages guaranteed not to offend them. That principle incentivizes violent irrationality. It says that, if you want your doctrine or your ideas to be shielded from criticism, all you have to do is threaten to get violent, and then the machinery of the state will swing into action to protect you from other people’s disagreement. This is the very definition of a perverse incentive, and it’s exactly what the thugs want. All the more reason not to give into them – neither by censoring our own speech, nor by letting the state censor the speech of others. If we shelter violent insanity from criticism, the advocates of those beliefs will only become more emboldened and aggressive.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.