Burning the Quran—Free Speech or Criminal Negligence?

Via William Harryman
on Sep 7, 2010
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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?


About William Harryman

I am a writer/editor, fitness trainer, integral coach, and a graduate counseling psychology student. I blog at Integral Options Cafe and The Masculine Heart. I am an occasional contributor to Elephant Journal.


21 Responses to “Burning the Quran—Free Speech or Criminal Negligence?”

  1. elephantjournal says:

    Thanks so much for writing this. I for one deeply appreciate General Petraeus' statement. This situation is simple: god bless America, in that this idiot has a right to do what he wants to do. And, secondly, hopefully he'll realizing he's hurting our cause and will decide to demonstrate in a less youtube-friendly, inflammatory, hateful manner.

  2. Jolene says:

    William, you've written a rockin' article. Thanks for the sanity.

  3. Roger Wolsey says:

    re: that dude in Florida who's fixin' to torch a bunch of holy books? yeah, he doesn't have anything to do with the faith that enlivens and inspires me. just in case there was any confusion.

    In Christian love,


    see also this fine article: http://eugenecho.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/what-wo

    and also check out: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-1122331http://www.facebook.com/pages/Protest-against-bur
    and, if you want to gaze at the dark side, see: http://www.facebook.com/pages/International-Burn-

  4. Thanks Roger – I know more Christians are like you than are like Jones – but it's the guys like Jones who get media attention, not the men and women quietly doing their work in the world, and in their families. We need to change that somehow.

  5. It's been bothering me – I needed to get it off my chest, so to speak. Glad I struck a chord.

  6. Roger Wolsey says:

    and for those that like to go straight to the horse's mouth: http://www.doveworld.org/

    (btw, i can find no evidence that "pastor" Terry is ordained. does anyone know more?)

  7. elephantjournal says:

    "peace among religions lead to peace among nations" "only 30 people" http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/08/us/08koran.html

  8. roshuk says:

    Could also be a "hate crime". The right of "free speech" has never been absolute, you can't yell fire in a crowded theatre and not be responsible for those who are trampled to death trying to escape. See this article about a similar Koran burning:

  9. Aron Stein says:

    This is obviously repugnant. But I fail to see how it is much different than making a cartoon of Mohammed. Something I full support.

  10. […] Burning t&#1211&#1077 Quran – Free Speech &#959r Criminal Negligence? | elephant journal […]

  11. Daniel Szyper says:

    If one man's act of burning a Koran can lead to more violence being committed against Americans or American troops by Muslims (or even the fact that there is a fear that this may happen), then doesn't that just prove the point about Islam being a violent religion? Am I the only person who sees this irony? Is the solution then to appease Muslims, even at the expense of stifling free speech–a cornerstone of liberal democracy and a founding principle of this country? Sharia will in effect be the law of the land if you have your way, and the Constitution will be abrogated. Then, within a few decades, no one will remember what it was like to live in a "free country", a beacon of liberty unto the world. This is already happening in Europe. Now, thanks to people like you, it is happening here.

  12. David says:

    Be careful what you wish for. This is not a time to be academic.
    There are limits most of our freedoms.
    Religious freedom allows us to believe and say what we think, but our actions must stay within the laws of our locality, state and nation. Speech also must not cause a "clear and present danger."
    I think the police and prosecuting attorney in the Florida county and the attorney general of Florida have a responsibility to all of us to enforce the laws constitutionally as interpreted by the courts.
    Is the proposed Koran burning legal or is it disorderly conduct that creates a clear and present danger?
    Is it arson?
    Is it a hate crime?
    Historically, people and groups that have engaged in book burning have been scorned by the following generations.
    As a Christian minister, I would remind this pastor and his church that we are instructed to love our neighbors even as Jesus loves us; that we do unto others as we would have them do to us; that we even love our enemies and do good unto those who despitefully use us. What do you suppose happens at judgment to pastors who claim God in order to justify doing something that God clearly would find abhorent?

  13. NellaLou says:

    " in that this idiot has a right to do what he wants to do"

  14. No, Daniel, it does not prove Islam is a violent religion any more than Jones and the Christians who kill abortion doctors and bomb the clinics prove that Christianity is a violent religion. What is proves is that extremists in ANY religion are extremists and will go to any length to defend/promote their worldview.

    There are ONE BILLION Muslims in the world and the majority of them are peaceful human beings.

    What Jones was planning (he has since canceled his protest as of today) is the equivalent of yelling FIRE in a crowded theater – some speech is not protected. When political speech endangers human lives, it becomes questionable as to whether or not it's protected. In general, I would protect such speech – but not always.

  15. elephantjournal says:

    Missed you!

  16. NellaLou says:

    Sarcasm no doubt.

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