Saturday, April 02, 2011

Terry Jones and moral responsibility for murder

Via Terry Glavin, a very interesting analysis of the murders in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar, discussing the manipulation of religious sentiment both among Muslims and Christians, as well as the tangled and very sad situation in Afghanistan is one source of Afghans' anger - The Dead of Mazar.
It sounds like chaos theory: a fringe extremist religious leader in the Florida boondocks holds a trial of the Quran for its role in inspiring the 9/11, condemns it to death and has someone else execute it by burning – and on the other side of the world, angry Muslims, possibly incited by sermons of hatred, storm a ‘foreigners’ compound and (in the words of the UN spokesman on BBC TV last night) ‘hunt down’ and kill seven of them....

And – since Pastor Jones’ provocation if not deemed to directly inciting violence seems to be protected by the First Amendment(**), we still hope that, despite his public denials, his dreams will be visited by the pictures of the slain of Mazar and, after today, Kandahar.
These are the first and last paragraphs - it's well worth reading the whole article.


  1. I have trouble with this.

    Book burning, while reprehensible, is protected speech. It ought have groups like the ACLU up in arms that the government and everyone else seems to think that condemning the burning of a mere book is commendable. The reaction among many in the West has been, in its way, as bad as burning a book. It says that our principals are subject to the whims of those who still believe in blasphemy. Because we have troops in Afghanistan - perhaps a sign of becoming an Empire - we decided that our own principles should take a back seat to the ravings of Islamist lunatics.

    Another thing. Politicians and military leaders would not need to publicly condemn the mere burning of a religious book if, in fact, they had even the slightest confidence that the rampage represents the thinking only of a small, violent extreme. Maybe, it is a violent extreme. Maybe not. I could not say. Evidently, the military and politicians either are not sure or believe that such views are representative.

    Further, blaming murders on the mere burning of a book is nonsense. Jones, if he should lose some sleep, should do so for burning a book, not because lunatics decided to go on a rampage. The book burner was an excuse for Islamists and fellow travelers to commit the sort of signature acts by which we have come to know Islamists: violence. I would be interested in when was the last time that anyone killed large numbers of people as a response to someone burning a book.

  2. Athenian: "It ought have groups like the ACLU up in arms that the government and everyone else seems to think that condemning the burning of a mere book is commendable."

    You seem to have gotten some important things backwards. When did book-burning become something that should not be condemned? When the book is a Quran? Every principled and civilized person will properly condemn that book-burning Floridian hillbilly imam for his vulgarity. His disgusting act would have been condemnable even if it had not been intended as a deliberate provocation to violence and mayhem.

    Calling him what he is - a nauseating religious fanatic - and calling his act by its proper name - surely something at least approaching an act of criminal negligence - is not the same as reacting in Pavlovian fashion for the abridgement of the free speech rights he enjoys as an American citizen. At the same time, one would have to engage in some fancy gyrations in logic to purport that he bears no culpability in what has happened. You'd also have to engage in the most delusional circumlocutions to protest that this Jones character is innocent of the moral squalor that animates the enraged burners of American flags whose frenzies routinely carry them away to murder.

    A classic boundary between free speech and its liberties on the one hand and criminal culpability for the consequences of excercising one's rights to free speech, on the other, has been proximity: It's one thing to compose some uncharitable treatise about money-changers for an early 18th century broadsheet. It's quite another thing to yell out those same calumnies before a howling mob of villagers with torches who have gathered in the middle of the night in front of a banker's house. The digital world in which we all must now live has collapsed proximity. And that's just one thing to take into account in this. It wasn't that long ago that the most fervent civil libertarians would allow statutory infringements on speech during times of war - that's just another.

    Reducing this to a simplistic and infantilizing attributions of blame is what will get you to the idiocy of the UN's kulan naffar in Afghanistan, Staffan di Misutura, who has asserted that no Afghan is to be blamed for this, and fault should be laid exclusively at the feet of the dangerous little simpleton Terry Jones.

    See where it leads? I hope so.

  3. Terry,

    Back some years ago, another sacred symbol was in issue. That symbol was the US flag, which to many is a sacred symbol. Lest you recall, the Supreme Court sided with the flag burners; rightfully so, by the way. That opinion was supported by the ACLU. You, for whatever reason, see the situation as distinguishable from the circumstances of burning a book which some Muslims take as literally burning the sacred word of the Almighty, not merely the burning of a copy of a book containing those words.

    Rev. Jones has no fault in the deaths. He does hold views which offend. But, the right to offend by means of symbolic speech is something which people on the Left used to support. Nowadays, people on the Left have jumped in bed with religious reactionaries of Muslim confession and, for that reason, constantly have to create ad hoc defenses for what, were we speaking about any religion other than Islam, would be treated totally differently. Lest you doubt me, recall the "piss Jesus" art, an offensive display which, as one who still believes in actual liberal values, I support even though, in my estimate, believing Christians reasonably find it offensive.

    Again: the right to offend is something which the ACLU has properly supported over the years. If they do not support the offensive Rev. Jones, it is because they have carved ought a special, ad hoc, case for language and acts deemed sacred by devout Muslims, the very opposite of where the ACLU has always stood. Q.E.D.

  4. Athenian - if you read Terry's blog, you'll find that he's hardly in bed with Muslim reactionaries. He's seeing Jones' act in a larger context than you are, and I agree with him. Jones can't be prosecuted for anything, because of the First Amendment, but that doesn't stop me or others from holding him partially morally responsible for the deaths of innocent people in Afghanistan. And if you read my blog, you'll discover that I'm also hardly in bed with Muslim reactionaries.

  5. Rebecca,

    I made a point of looking at Terry's website. I was, however, responding to his comment made to me, not what appears on his website.

    I am well aware that there are polemics involved in the reaction of many Christian preachers to Islam. Jones, despite his denials, may be such a person. However, the fact that there is an association does not mean there is causation.

  6. Rebecca,

    Your blog ate my post. Please, unless you find it offensive, re-post it so that it stays up.

  7. Rebecca,

    I inadvertently kept a copy. So, I am breaking it up.

    Moral causation, of course, an interpretation of the event. I, however, do not see any moral causation. I see exactly the opposite. I see a lunatic in Florida who wants to make a point by burning a book which Muslims think to be the actual word of the Almighty, not a copy of words said or approved of by the Almighty. I see lunatics in the Muslim world who use this as a pretext to kill people; not only that, but people wholly unrelated to the Florida preacher.

  8. I noted, lastly, what a civil libertarian would argue, namely, that the right to offend by symbolic speech is an important right, one that needs to be celebrated, just as it was in the Flag burning case where reactionaries saw it as a dark day for our republic. It was not. That, however, does not alter the fact that Jones acted with reprehensible taste. Flag burners also act reprehensibly, but that does not mean we should not stand by their side when they are told - as is occurring now in the US regarding negative comments about Islam - not to burn flags. Rather, we need to stand by our principles, not those of people who kill as a protest for supposedly blasphemous acts.

  9. Athenian - from now on, if you'd like to comment on a post, please limit yourself to one comment per post before someone else comments.

  10. Rebecca,

    I shall, of course, comply with your wishes. Please note, though, that blogger often fails to post even relatively short responses, so that it is necessary to break up a single post into several posts.