Book Burning? Really?

Pastor “Doctor” Terry Jones, in his Harley-riding gear

Burning a book is never a good idea.  Our culture is rife with exhortations against this barbaric practice.  It was, after all, something the Nazis were famous for doing.  Ray Bradbury’s classic book, Fahrenheit 451 refers to the temperature at which the pages of books begin to combust, evidence of our culture’s abhorrence of this practice.  (It’s actually supposed to be Celcius, but let’s not quibble.)

Now comes news that a wacky Christian fundamentalist, “Doctor” Terry Jones, is planning to publicly burn copies of the Koran.  He’s even got a Facebook page (and I feel bad for advertising it, but it’s all in the name of education.)   He’s burning these books, not for the traditional reason espoused by book-burners (to suppress “dangerous” ideas), but overtly to offend and incite.  On second thought, maybe he really is afraid of some of the Koran’s “dangerous” ideas…?

This is big news because “the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Petraeus, has said that the move could endanger the lives of troops in Afghanistan and protests have already kicked off in Jakarta and Kabul.” [BBC]

(Aside: there are some “news” reports of Terry Jones being arrested for child pornography.  At the time of this blog post, none of those stories appear valid.  So don’t get distracted by them.)

In an interview with BBC radio, Jones was seemingly self-contradictory.  He said that his event was to draw attention to the violence of radical Islam.  Then he said that the Koran was demonic and that Islam was innately violent.  The contradiction is in his original intent to only target “radical” Islam, but his method and verbiage clearly smears all Islam. This appears to be the norm for many American Muslim-baiters, who try to cache their hatred in the rhetoric of the reasonable, but who fail miserably when their words are examined closely.

It’s important to note Jones’s official intent: he overtly states that his intent is to incite a violent reaction from adherents to radical Islam.  We’ll come  back to this.

So what’s going on here?  Well, there are three parties that need some serious condemnation.  First are those members of the Islamic community who will predictably react with violence at Jones’s little publicity stunt.  People, listen to me: yes, it’s offensive and Jones is a moron for doing it.  But it’s just paper.  It’s the words that are sacred, not the paper.  Anyone who rises to his baiting is, frankly, a fool.  So suck it up and respect Jones’s right to be a moron.

Related to this first group is the governments and para-governmental bodies that will literally “fan the flames” to make as much of this spectacle as possible.  Iranian government and Indonesians with bullhorns, I’m looking at you.

Third, of course, is Jones himself… and his thousands of Facebook followers and silent lurkers who will nod in cowardly and silent complicity.  I have written many times that one of humanity’s greatest inventions is the Constitution of the United States and its Bill of Rights.  That remarkable document gives Jones the legal right to express himself however he pleases.  To me, that right is inviolate.

But the Constitution does not say that the exercising of its rights does not excuse a citizen from responsibility for the consequences of such actions.  This is an important point, I believe.  Some contend that the fundament of ethical (and therefore legal) behaviour is that one is ultimately responsible for the foreseeable consequences of one’s actions.

So, remember Jones’s declaration, that his intent is to incite the adherents of radical Islam into violence.  The consequences of his actions, then, are not only foreseeable, they are expected… by his own proud admission, no less.

Thus, if violence does erupt, the first who must be blamed are those who commit the violence.  But a close second are those who knowingly and intentionally incited the violence.  If anyone dies as a result of this feat of nonsense, I wouldn’t be surprised if civil suits –and possibly criminal suits– are successfully brought to bear against Jones and his foolish followers.

There is so much tragedy at play here.  First there is the tragedy of a foolish bunch of inbred Floridians failing to avail themselves of a state-funded education.

Second is the tragedy of a sea of religious Muslims whose sensibilities are so fragile as to be inflamed by an inbred Floridian.

Third is the tragedy of the beautiful U.S. Constitution forced to defend actions that may cause mass bloodshed; certainly not then intent of its brilliant writers.

Fourth is the tragedy of the rest of the world’s inability to understand the beauty and intricacies of the Constitution… and so many Westerners’ inability to acknowledge that culture gap!  By this I mean the many comments I’ve read by Muslims abroad who don’t understand why the U.S. government doesn’t just step in and stop Jones’s foolishness.  (It’s because the glorious Constitution doesn’t give the government the ability to do anything it pleases, a limitation much of the world has yet to embrace.) Relatedly, so many Americans don’t understand how foreigners don’t understand that an individual’s rights are sacrosanct.  This is the cultural gap I’m talking about.  Much dialogue is needed.

And fifth is the profound tragedy that this one act will undo years of hard P.R. work by the West’s brokers for peace and understanding.   The selling of the War on Terror has always been that it is a struggle against those radicals who wish to co-opt the good name of Islam to do violence for political ends.. to counter the world’s sense that it’s just a mindless war on Islam.  The burning of the Koran sends one message and one message only: that American military adventures in Iraq Afghanistan and Pakistan are just manifestations of the West’s hatred for Islam as a whole.

No good will likely come of this.  But some good can come of this.  If the Muslim world takes a deep breath (for a change) and simply ignores this Floridian fool, maybe just shake their heads in pity and disgust and walk away, then Terry Jones’s thesis would be dramatically disproved and the two civilizations could take a giant step forward.  So how about it?  Any takers?