September 7, 2010

Burning the Quran—Free Speech or Criminal Negligence?

I am a liberal, not a Democrat but an actual, commie, pinko liberal. As such, the First Amendment guarantee of free speech is sacred. So it pains me to make the argument that the “Christian” fundamentalists in Florida who plan to burn Qurans to show the world that, “We do not want sharia law or sharia courts” in the United States, are not only wrong in burning the Islamic religious text, but potentially criminal for doing so in this case.

Before the legal argument, let’s look at the wrong and “simply stupid” argument.

When ultra-conservative Jonah Goldberg thinks you are wrong, you have really gone to the fringe. Jonah Goldberg writes:

I am at a loss as to how this isn’t a repugnant and stupid idea. Public book-burning, by its very nature, is offensive no matter what the book. Burning the Koran is idiotic on every level, even for people who think Islam is to blame for terrorism.  What does this church hope to gain? Will congregants feel like they’ve struck a blow for the West? For Christianity? For America? The fact that David Petraeus has to intervene would be simply embarrassing, if there weren’t lives on the line —American lives (and the lives of moderate Muslims who’ve bravely aligned themselves with us).

Granted, this “protest” headed by the extremely right-wing Dove World Church Pastor, Terry Jones, is only about 50 members strong, but it has generated a HUGE amount of attention in the media, including General Petraeus responding in the Wall Street Journal. It has even caused an anti-American protest in Afghanistan, where they called for President Obama’s death.

Jones plans to goes ahead with it, anyway, despite not being issued a fire permit for his bonfire of hatred. He says:

“It’s hard for people to believe, but we actually feel this is a message that we have been called to bring forth,” he said last week. “And because of that, we do not feel like we can back down.”

In Jones’s view, the Quran is a book of Satan – because it does not espouse the only true “word of God” as he believes the Bible does. I suspect he does not understand that his worldview is exactly the same as that of the Islamic terrorists he is protesting against. Those terrorists hate the West because we do not live according to what they believe is the one true way to live, according to their holy book. See the difference? Right, there is none.

I think people like Jones (and those who share his worldview) are terrible human beings, but I do not burn Bibles to protest them – I simply recognize that they are not Christ-like (the meaning of Christian) in any way whatsoever. Most Christians at least try to embody parts of Jesus’ message of love in their lives.

So, while the Constitution gives them the right to burn books, even religious books, just as it does every other ignorant person who wants to burn books with which they do disagree, in this case I agree with General Petraeus and Jonah Goldberg and the group of religious leaders who also oppose this form of protest:

The interfaith group of evangelical, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim leaders meeting in Washington condemned Jones’ plan to burn the Quran as a violation of American values and the Bible. Among the participants was Cardinal Theodore Mccarrick, retired Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C.; Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and top officials from the Islamic Society of North America, the group that organized the gathering.

On the bright side, it’s nice to see so many faiths coming together in agreement on something.

OK, then, the legal argument.

In my opinion, which counts for nothing as near as I can tell, if they continue with the Quran burning, and if in retaliation Islamic militants kill American soldiers or bomb American installations, then Jones and all who participate in and support his protest should be charged with criminal negligence, and possibly gross negligence.

[C]riminal negligence is a ‘misfeasance or ‘nonfeasance’ (see omission), where the fault lies in the failure to foresee and so allow otherwise avoidable dangers to manifest. In some cases this failure can rise to the level of willful blindness where the individual intentionally avoids adverting to the reality of a situation (note that in the United States, there may sometimes be a slightly different interpretation for willful blindness). The degree of culpability is determined by applying a reasonable person standard. Criminal negligence becomes “gross” when the failure to foresee involves a “wanton disregard for human life”.

Jones and his tiny church have been warned that their actions could endanger American lives, so they are legally culpable for those deaths if they continue with their protest. It rises to the level of “gross negligence” because to stage this ignorant protest demonstrates a “wanton disregard for human life.”

This stance bothers me because I see it as a slippery slope, as does Michael Cohen of The Progressive Realist. He makes a good argument:

I sort of hate slippery slope arguments, but it seems to me that this is the very definition of a dangerous slippery slope.

For example, would people comfortable if Petraeus characterized an anti-war march as a threat to the US mission in Afghanistan? Or what if Petraeus condemned a Congressional vote to cut funding for a weapons program as a threat to US soldiers in the field? Such behavior would almost certainly overstep not just the letter of civil-military relations, but certainly the spirit.

It’s very hard to see how Petraeus’s actions here are much different: well except for the fact that most people would generally agree that these folks in Florida are acting like complete jackasses – but acting like a jackass is a constitutionally protected right in this country. And I for one am fearful of the chilling effect on legitimate expressions of free speech to have a four star general characterizing such actions in the manner that Petraeus has.

So I’m torn. I see multiple perspectives on this:

I see the anger and frustration of Jones and his church (and the hate, for that matter)

I see the stupidity of such a blind worldview of hatred

I see the fear of the military leaders in how this will make their thankless jobs even tougher

I see a desire to punish Jones for any deaths his acts engender

I see the hatred and suffering of the Islamic terrorists

What I mostly feel is compassion for all of these views and people, no matter how wrong they seem to me.

But above all of that, I see the need to prevent useless deaths on both sides, and that is the highest calling. Jones must be stopped . . . or punished for any deaths his protest cause.

I’m guessing you have your own views on this, if you have read this far. So what do you think?

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