Let me get this out of the way in the first paragraph: Terry Jones of Qur’an burning fame is a bigoted fool. He’s a bigoted fool not because he burned his copy of the Qur’an, but because he hates people simply because they don’t worship the same God he does in a similar enough way. What a tool!
The number of people (and legislators) over-reacting to this incident, however seems to have reached an intensity I haven’t seen before. I’m hoping it will die down without any further stupid actions, but, baring another nuclear meltdown somewhere soon, I’m concerned it will not.
I know I’m preaching to the choir here about free speech, so I’ll skip the lessons about the Heckler’s Veto and importance of protecting unpopular speech beyond simply reaffirming that popular speech rarely needs protection in a democracy.
One element in this story that seems to have been neglected in the rush to ban such speech is that the original demonstrations over the Qur’an in Afghanistan were small and peaceful; similar to the kinds of protests I see in Chicago over immigration policies. The trigger that seems to have set off the violence and killings is President Hamid Karzai deciding to use the Qur’an burning in a speech of his as a political tool. It seems he wanted to show how much he cares about some of the fundamentalists in his country.
The reaction to that was, apparently, the Taliban deciding to cash in politically as well, and they joined one of the peaceful marches, broke off from the main group, and committed pre-meditated murderous acts. Their motive was, almost certainly, a political reaction to Karzai’s stumping.
The incident in Afghanistan seems to have been far more about politics than religion.
Now we cut to the reaction in America. Senator Reid would like to start Congressional hearings to look into ways he can protect people in other nations by banning speech in America. Senator Graham would like to invoke wartime powers (in our Forever War) to directly ban speech which could “inspire the enemy”. When can I expect politicians to start accusing each other of being soft on book burnings?
The reaction in America seems to be far more about politics than religion.
Let’s pretend, however, that this really is all about religion and free expression. There seem to be a few different arguments out in the community about why this type of speech should be banned. They all seem flawed. The problem is that I’m not a Constitutional scholar, and may have some very wrong ideas about free speech, so I’ll go over some of the common arguments I’ve been seeing and present my understanding of them even though I may be wrong. If anyone knows better, please enlighten me in the comments.
The most common argument I see is that America “restricts” speech anyway all the time, so we don’t really have free speech, so why are you complaining about just one more restriction in the name of saving lives? The basic problem with this argument is that there is a difference between restricting speech and banning speech. As far as I can tell (not being a Constitutional Scholar) is that America only outright bans one type of speech, regardless of time or place. You cannot directly incite violence. Period.
Some commentators have latched onto this idea and simply accuse Jones of incitement and proceed to call for banning of such speech on the same grounds. I consider this to be a most insidious and worrisome argument. If Congress were to ban speech by broadening the definition of incitement, we could run head first into the problems of the Heckler’s Veto, but I fear it would be used simply to ban speech the majority considers unpopular. I truly fear the majority in a democracy, for they can be more difficult to overthrow than a dictator.
Beyond incitement, though, I can’t think of any other speech that is outright banned in America. There is a variety of restrictions, but not a banning of speech beyond incitement. I suppose libel would be the speech with the most restrictions that is not outright banned. Even so, as I understand it, there are situations where libel is allowed, or perhaps isn’t legally called libel in America. I know it’s nearly impossible to stop someone from knowingly lying about a public figure, such as a celebrity or politician. I wonder if this blog is enough for me to be considered a “public figure”. I imagine there are legal debates going on right now about how that definition is changing in the new media.
Another form of speech that seems to be cited as heavily restricted is when conspiring to commit a crime. In this case it is not the speech that is illegal but the conspiracy. From what I have read, the speech is the evidence used to prove conspiracy. The situation and intent is all important here as Rod Blagojevich has been trying to prove. If you say the words in jest, they are not evidence of a conspiracy.
That leaves the various “time and place” restrictions. The thought experiment generally cited is the classic “yelling ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater”. The speech “Fire!” is not banned in America. The time and place of that speech makes creating the ensuing dangerous panic illegal.*
The other time and place restrictions such as getting your bullhorn out at 3:00 am in front of a hospital are, just like the “yelling fire” example, not banning speech, but placing reasonable restrictions on speech. The same speech is allowed in most places at most times. Saying you want to restrict burning holy books just like America restricts people from yelling “fire” is not at all the same. You can yell “Fire!” outside of the theater, or even inside when the theater is not crowded. Banning book burnings is not a time and place restriction.
In conclusion, let me reiterate a point I’ve made before. It’s just a friggin’ book! It’s paper, ink and some binding material. The words and ideas within cannot be destroyed by burning a copy of a book. I once suggested the correct reaction to such situations was to burn the holy books of as many religions as possible all at once to demonstrate this fact as well as show that it’s not just about religious penis envy.
I now realize, however, that’s so 20th century. We should instead organize a mass deletion of holy e-books. I want to not just delete them, however, since I know that all of the words will still exist. We need to destroy those magnetic bits so they can’t be reconstructed. On PC’s it will be easy to download software to overwrite that Bible with random electronic signals, utterly destroying that copy forever. In other e-book devices you may need to erase that Qur’an then upload new, larger books in its place, then delete that and repeat enough times to make the original words vanish into digital oblivion.
Buddhavacana, Norse eddas, the Four Books of Confucianism, the Book of Enoch, the Tabula Cortonensis and many, many more. Let’s get digital copies and erase them en masse! Mash those Holy Ones and Zeros together with such a fury that even the NSA couldn’t put them back in any semblance of order. Grab your old book reader loaded with all these texts and turn on that giant electro magnet you built years ago but never had a use for! Listen to that glorious buzz as the memory chips are hopelessly cleansed of Bronze Age rituals and misogynistic rules!
What the world needs now is a Holy E-Book Demolition Party! Can you still book Comiskey Park?
*By the way, I think it’s time for the scholars to update that thought experiment. Yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater today would, most likely, just result in a head full of popcorn and getting yelled at to sit down and shut up. The fire codes are so good (not saying they couldn’t be improved at all) that most people would no longer be panicked by such a statement barring secondary indications of a conflagration such as smoke and a fire alarm going off. Perhaps we can use “Yelling ‘Muslim!’ in a crowded Tea Party Convention”.