Morality’s Fuzzy Edges

I’m putting aside the horrific nature of the protests in Afghanistan order to focus on the domestic moral and legal issues the Terry Jones case has dredged up. I’ve already condemned this violence, which doesn’t stop assholes from selectively editing my earlier post to make it seem I did not.

But the question of Jones’s relative guilt or innocence is not as black-and-white as some people make it out to be. It’s true that Jones did not “make” anyone riot and commit murder. And there are no excuses for murders by mob.

But what he did do, as Professor Cole explains, was hand Afghanis who are hostile to foreign troops on their soil an invaluable propaganda tool. “[T]his issue allows some of them to organize to protest the over 100,000 US troops in their country, which is really what they are objecting to,” he explained. And in earlier wars, aiding the enemy’s propaganda efforts really could get you into serious trouble (think Tokyo Rose).

In Schenck v. United States (1919) the Supreme Court held unanimously that people opposed to U.S. involvement in World War I did not have a right to distribute leaflets that advocated draft resistance. For the record, I disagree with this decision, but I’m tossing it out to show a precedent for what Jones did and how it was handled in an earlier time.

In Schenck, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said,

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. […] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.

As I’ve said before, I think what Jones did is akin to shouting fire in a crowded theater. No, he didn’t shout that people should trample each other on the way to the exits, but he had been warned shouting fire could incite people to trample each other on the way to the exits, so to speak, and he shouted anyway.

I understand that the Schenk “clear and present danger” test has been since revised to the “imminent lawless action” test, meaning that government may not censor speech that promotes violence or lawlessness in the abstract, but only if the speech is likely to cause imminent and specific lawlessness.

I think it could be argued that what Jones did was akin to this. Even though he hadn’t explicitly advocate lawlessness and murder, he had been sternly warned before by many people that his Koran burning stunt could have horrific consequences and possibly put troops in danger, and he did it anyway.

Earlier generations took putting troops in danger very seriously. That’s one of the reasons the World War II generation reacted so strongly to anti-war activism during the Vietnam era, btw. They may not have been crazy about the War in Vietnam, but it shocked them to their foundations that people (who included me, btw) were publicly speaking out against an American military action at all. Back in the day, that wouldn’t have happened.

And I’d like to point out that righties born long after the fall of Saigon still hate and condemn Jane Fonda for undermining the war effort back then. But she was within her rights, like it or not.

However — the right to express an opinion without government censorship is nearly absolute in the U.S. Freedom of speech is one of the few values Left and Right appear to agree on; I say “appear to,” because conservatives persist in introducing amendments to the Constitution prohibiting the burning of American flags. But in principle it’s something we agree on.

So what’s to be done with Terry Jones, who has found a way to draw attention to himself by doing something he had been told would have horrific consequences? After all, he only expressed an opinion. He has a right. On the other hand, his speech is detrimental to whatever it is we are trying to accomplish in Afghanistan. He’s undermining a U.S. war effort; even Gen. David Petraeus has said so.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham spoke up and said something to the effect of “freedom of speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war.” Righties in particular reacted harshly to this and are preparing to rally for Jones’s absolute right to free speech. These are some of the same people who are trying to hold Van Jones “accountable” for some opinions he expressed after 9/11, mind you. So let’s not kid ourselves they care about freedom of speech per se.

But again, what’s to be done about Jones? I’m opposed to government censorship. It would be nice if the Right showed some, um, consistency and condemned him as much as they have condemned Jane Fonda. But I’m not holding my breath over that.

What I do long for is for family members of any troops or UN personnel killed in the recent riots to sock Jones with the mother of all wrongful death suits. I don’t know if it would stand up in court, but I’d like to see someone try.

13 thoughts on “Morality’s Fuzzy Edges

  1. This is indeed a sticky wicket. Jones has said publicly that Muslims are violent and Muslims want to impose Shiria law in America – cause. Jones burns the Koran – effect. For the life of me I can’t put those two together as cause and effect, which has little or nothing to do with free speech rights but certainly questions Jones’ motive.

    I’m thinking back to the Court’s ruling on what constitutes pornography. Their decision ruled that if the act (or language? or publication? or?) is prurient, it’s pornography and will be disallowed. So, in my head at least, it boils down to a ‘judgement call.’ If the act etc. in question sexually arouses (Supreme Court Justices?) it’s prurient and a no-no.

    I only bring this up to show that if Jones’ Koran-burning stunt could be shown (by the Court at least) to cause the killing of people, it could be forbidden?

    Any way maha, I get your sort-of ‘argument’ with yourself — all sides were well analyzed. I think, however, that the Court could make a good case that Jones’ act in future should be outlawed.

  2. Just because he has the “right” to burn the Qur’an doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Nor is it a good idea to have anyone cover this act of hostile stupidity. Let him burn whatever he wants in anonymity.
    Let this creature crawl back under the rock he got out from under without another camera or recording device in sight.

    I’m sure though, that he got the desired reaction to go along with the attention that yahoo wanted. I suspect he wanted to to show how extreme and violent Muslims are – in order to feed the meme that they’re somehow subhuman. Though the people there shouldn’t have done what they did, it was a particularly stupid act of provocation that set them off. That, and the fact they haven’t had a moments peace in the last 30+ years, between the Soviets, the Taliban, and us.

    And all of this from a guy who I’m sure would go ballistic if I decided to zippo a Bible on the steps of his little rinky-dink dirtwater church.

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. You wanna burn Holy Books? Then go to a country in that culture and fire away.
    I’m sure your God will protect you – but, I suspect you don’t have THAT much faith, and don’t really want to be martyred, do you?

    I’m all for suing him. For as much as possible.
    I suspect, though, that Karma may rear it’s head regarding the not reverend Jones sooner rather than later. GO KARMA!!!

  3. Oh, and I forgot to mention that this festering postule on the anus of humanity will be holding a trail on Mohammed.
    Paging Karma!

  4. this festering postule on the anus of humanity will be holding a trail on Mohammed.

    It’s like he’s lighting matches and throwing them into a pool of gasoline, and then claiming the fire isn’t his fault because he’s not the one who spilled the gasoline. There’s not much that can be done except try to persuade him to stop being a jerk, but since he so obviously is a jerk that’s probably hopeless.

    Here’s where I’d like to see lots and lots of Christian ministers speaking out against what Jones is doing, if only because it’s putting troops in danger. Maybe the message would break through to some of Jones’s followers, if not to Jones himself.

  5. Yes, it would be nice if other ministers were to call this guy and tell him to can it!
    But I’m afraid some of them are looking at him, and taking lessons on how to get attention for themselves.

    For all the bad he did, at least Little Boots did two things I didn’t hate – he tried to help fight AIDS in Africa (and yeah, I know some of that was BS), and he didn’t demonize Muslims – and this at a time when a lot of people I knew were demonizing them.

  6. I just read where two NATO troops were killed by a Afghan policeman as a direct result of Jone’s Koran burning stunt.. NATO troops for all practical purposes is almost synonymous for American troops.. We’ll see if Jone’s managed to bag two American soldiers with his hateful acting out.

  7. Isn’t it just a bit too coincidental that we are suddenly presented with images and stories of this guy when US soldier “kill team” souvenir photos become public?
    Agreed, Jones is a jerk, but will we ever tire of shifting our focus? The senator and the general are more to blame for these murders.

  8. I’ve always found it curious that burning the American flag is both the supreme insult and the most respectful way of disposing of worn-out flags. Does anybody know what the proper way is to retire Qurans that have gone beyond their usefulness?

  9. Lord. I was hoping for an easy post – have to come back to this one with coffee in hand. What I would say now is your choice in title. Morality’s Fuzzy Edges. I would just argue that what is legal is not necessarily moral. He may have a legal right to be dick but I see nothing moral in it.

  10. Really Maha, Schenck, one of the worst SCOTUS decisiones ever? [Schenck’s 20 year conviction for handing out anti WWI flyers was upheld as well as Eugene Debb’s for giving a speech on Marxism] True, the law has changed, by Holmes no less who said that Schenck was his worst decision, but it has changed for the better.

    The law in this case is the same as that in Texas v. Johnson, the flag burning case. If a law banning Koran burning is constitutional than so is a law banning flag burning Q.E.D.

    • Really Maha, Schenck, one of the worst SCOTUS decisiones ever?

      If you could actually read, you might notice that I said I disagreed with Schenck. Also, if you could actually read, you would have discerned that I was not arguing in favor of banning koran burning. I was merely reflecting on how such issues were looked at in the past.

      People who comment on my posts without actually reading them really push my buttons. You’re banned.

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