A couple weeks ago, Terry Jones finally gave into his burning desire to burn a Qur’an. Over the weekend, Afghans rioted over online video of the burning, resulting in the deaths of up to 20 people.
General Petreus called the burning a “security threat” to the Afghan occupation, and Senators Harry Reid and Lindsay Graham have called for Congress to “take a look at” action, possibly hearings or some kind of “push-back” — such as an official denunciation. Senator Graham took the hardest line:
I wish we could find some way to — to hold people accountable,” he said during a Sunday appearance on “Face the Nation.” “Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war. During World War II you had limits on what you could say if it would inspire the enemy.
Any time we can push back here in America against actions like this that put our troops at risk, we ought to do it,” he added. “So I look forward to working with Senator Kerry and Reid and others to condemn this, condemn violence all over the world based in the name of religion.” (emphasis added)
Though Jones’ church committed a despicable deed, his parishioners were within their 1st Amendment Rights, and free speech isn’t just a “great idea” — it’s the law. Graham’s reference to the curtailment of speech during World War 2 does not appear to be a reminder of how Americans kept a tight lid on troop movements and shipping routes, but of the wholesale censorship of wartime dissent from pacifists, fascist sympathizers, communists, and isolationists. We might find some of their objections to the war misguided, or even abhorrent, but that authoritarian stance on speech helped set the stage for what would be one of the darkest eras for freedom of expression in American history.
A resolution from Congress should not aim to condemn the Qu’ran burning, either as a hateful act or for “inciting the enemy”. That same logic could apply to burning flags, tomorrow. Rather, Congress should pass a resolution affirming some of the best values in our constitution:
- That Americans are free to express admiration or criticism for any religion in their personal speech, and recognize that the right to criticize is essential to the right to worship.
- The United States Government in no way endorses or restrains the religious speech of citizens acting of their own accord, and the acts of Americans who choose to express intolerance do not reflect the government’s sentiment or policy.
Perhaps that is not sexy enough to rile up a political base or score points for the next election season, but such a statement would do a lot more to reinforce freedoms for which American soldiers and civilians have fought, both at home and abroad.