If you know that exercising your constitutional rights will cause the death of innocents, should you do it anyway? When are our constitutional rights more important than human life?
These are not easy questions, and anyone who thinks there are black-and-white answers has his head in the sand.
Let's get the man himself out of the way: pretty much everyone agrees that Pastor Terry Jones is a complete jerk. Even those who defend his right to free speech think he's an ass. He's also a creepy old man, fixated on the bathroom and bathing habits of his students. But in America we're all equal in the eyes of the law, so we'll put our dislike for the man himself aside.
The real challenges to freedom and democracy don't come from easy cases. When terrorists fly an airplane into a building there are no hard moral dilemmas. If all moral choices were that simple, we wouldn't need a Supreme Court. But consider what's really going on here:
- Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment. It includes the right to burn flags, Bibles and Qur'ans.
- Terry Jones knew before he set a Qur'an on fire that people were likely to die. General Petraeus warned him. The State Department warned him. Even President Obama said it would jeopardize the American mission.
- Terry Jones burned a Qur'an. The predicted riots materialized and over a dozen people are dead.
Clearly there are limits on free speech. Has Terry Jones crossed that line? I honestly don't know. The right to free speech is so incredibly important ... but what if my son was one of the dead United Nations Peacekeeper soldiers?
I think the part everyone is forgetting is that Terry Jones wasn't some latter-day Nathan Hale choosing his own death in the fight for freedom. Jones is letting other people do the dying. If Jones really believes in free speech, if he really thinks the Qur'an should be put on trial, he should put his own life on the line. He should buy a ticket to Pakistan or Afghanistan and do his book-burning in a town square surrounded by Muslims. I imagine they'd be quite impressed by his convictions as they tied him to the stake.
In my final analysis, I think we have to separate the moral from the legal. What Terry Jones did was probably legal under the United States Constitution's First Amendment. But it was immoral. Terry Jones' actions were unconscionable and completely unnecessary. There were a thousand other ways he could have made his point without killing innocent people. In the end, he is nothing more than a self-centered egomaniac, lusting for his fifteen minutes of fame and willing to sacrifice young soldiers' lives to get it.
And I can't close without condemning the Muslim factions that actually responded to Terry Jones provocations. There is no excuse for their riots and the murders of innocent UN Peacekeepers. But that's the topic of a future blog.