Monday, April 04, 2011

Was Pastor Terry Jones Responsible For The Deaths of UN Workers?

Of course he was. Anyone who argues that his free speech rights would be abridged if he had voluntarily decided not to stage a burning of the Koran does not understand that free speech isn't an abstract zero sum game in which the real world consequences aren't knowable and predictable. Instead, the media-seeking fundamentalist extremist went ahead with his mock trial and burning, and 20 people including nine UN workers (two of them beheaded) were mudered by a mob of religious fanatics in Afghanistan protesting the Koran burning. (Here is an interesting discussion of Pastor Jones's moral responsibility for the killings.)

To use the 'yelling fire in a theater' analogy, free speech can have deadly consequences. A person does not have an absolute right to pack more people into a theater, for example, than the fire codes permit. If the event is cancelled for safety reasons was their right to free speech violated? And metaphorically, if Pastor Jones "falsely" (because the Koran by generally accepted religious standards is not what he represents it to be through its burning) yells 'fire' in a crowded theater with his mock Koran trial and burning — that theater is the 'theater of operations' in Afghanistan where the killings occurred, and the theater patrons are U.S. and allied troops, UN and foreign aid workers, and every single person whose life is now greatly endangered by Pastor Jones's inflammatory speech.

In such cases, free speech can be circumscribed by safety considerations (fire codes) or voluntarily, when the commander of U.S. troops in the region, General David Petraeus explicitly said last September that “[i]mages of the burning of a Koran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan—and around the world—to inflame public opinion and incite violence.” This wasn't empty rhetoric on the General's part; his prediction came true. General Petraeus did not have the power to compel responsible conduct from Pastor Jones. He was just asking. Most reasonable people, understanding the danger to human lives, would agree to show restraint. It happens every day. It is neither cowardly, as some have claimed, nor an abridgement of free speech.

But if wasn't only the Koran burning. The horrible images and story of the U.S. Army "kill team" published by Der Spiegel probably did as much to endanger the safety of Americans and UN workers, et al in Afghanistan as the Koran book burning. As did the killing of Afghan children. Petraeus can do something about these, as he should. He doesn't need a Pastor Jones headache to make his mission infinitely more difficult and challenging.

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