Don’t blame free speech for the murders in Afghanistan

April 8, 2011

Last week, an angry mob of Afghani protesters enraged by the recent burning of a Koran in Florida — their angers stoked by local Muslim leaders — stormed a U.N. compound and murdered at least 7 people. The only thing more upsetting than this incident has been the public response placing the blame for these deaths on the shoulders of Pastor Terry Jones and of Wayne Sapp, a member of Jones’ congregation at the Dove World Outreach Center, who torched a Koran on March 20.

The most disturbing example of this response came from the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, who said, “I don't think we should be blaming any Afghan. We should be blaming the person who produced the news — the one who burned the Koran. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of offending culture, religion, traditions.” I was not going to comment on this monumentally inane line of thought, especially since Susan Jacoby, Michael Tomasky, and Mike Labossiere have already done such a marvelous job of it. But then I discovered, to my shock, that several of my liberal, progressive American friends actually agreed that Jones has some sort of legal and moral responsibility for what happened in Afghanistan. I believe he has neither. Here is why.

Unlike many countries in the Middle East and Europe that punish blasphemy by fine, jail or death, the U.S., via the First Amendment and a history of court decisions, strongly protects freedom of speech and expression as basic and fundamental human rights. These include critiquing and offending other citizens’ culture, religion, and traditions. Such rights are not supposed to be swayed by peoples' subjective feelings, which form an incoherent and arbitrary basis for lawmaking. In a free society, if and when a person is offended by an argument or act, he or she has every right to argue and act back. If a person commits murder, the answer is not to limit the right; the answer is to condemn and punish the murderer for overreacting.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Governments have an interest in condemning certain speech that provokes immediate hatred of or violence against people. The canonical example is yelling “fire!” in a packed room when there in fact is no fire, since this creates a clear and imminent danger for those inside the room. But Jones did not create such an environment, nor did he intend to. Jones (more precisely, Wayne Sapp) merely burned a book in a private ceremony in protest of its contents. Indeed, the connection between Jones and the murders requires many links in-between. The mob didn’t kill those accountable, or even Americans.

But even if there is no law prohibiting Jones’ action, isn’t he morally to blame for creating the environment that led to the murders? Didn’t he know Muslims would riot, and people might die?

It seems ridiculous to assume that Jones could know such a thing, even if parts of the Muslim world have a poor track record in this area. But imagine for a moment that Jones did know Muslims would riot, and people would die. This does not make the act of burning a book and the act of murder morally equivalent, nor does it make the book burner responsible for reactions to his act. In and of itself, burning a book is a morally neutral act. Why would this change because some misguided individuals think book burning is worth the death penalty? And why is it that so many have automatically assumed the reaction to be reasonable or respectable? To use an example nearer to some of us, recall when PZ Myers desecrated a communion wafer. If some Christian was offended, and went on to murder the closest atheist, would we really blame Myers? Is Myers' offense any different than Jones’?

I think I know why many people want to turn around and blame Jones: the deep-seated belief among many that blasphemy is wrong. This means any reaction to blasphemy is less wrong, and perhaps even excused, compared to the blasphemous offense. Even President Obama said that, "The desecration of any holy text, including the Koran, is an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry.” To be sure, Obama went on to denounce the murders, and to state that burning a holy book is no excuse for murder. But Obama apparently couldn’t condemn the murders without also condemning Jones’ act of religious defiance.

As it turns out, this attitude is exactly what created the environment that led to murders in the first place. The members of the mob believed that religious belief should be free from public critical inquiry, and that a person who offends religious believers should face punishment. In the absence of official prosecution, they believed they had the right to take matters into their own hands and punish anyone on the side of the offender. It didn’t help that Afghan leaders stoked the flames of hatred — but they only did so because they agreed with the mob’s sentiment to begin with. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the U.S. should punish those responsible, and three well-known Afghan mullahs urged their followers to take to the streets and protest to call for the arrest of Jones. “Burning the Koran is an insult to Islam, and those who committed it should be punished,” said Mullah Mohammed Shah Adeli. For the threat to be followed by actual murder they needed an audience who agreed. Sadly, they had one.

Let me be clear: I do not like Terry Jones or his views. I also would not burn a Koran. I’d rather have people read it. But these sentiments are not enough to bend the law or warp my sense of morality. As Voltaire said, I will defend the right to free speech for even those I disagree with most. Blame for the horrible acts in Afghanistan does not fall on the people who criticized Islam. It falls on the fundamentalists who think that people who speak out against religious belief deserve death.

Note: this essay was originally published on the blog Rationally Speaking.



#1 J. (Guest) on Friday April 08, 2011 at 7:46pm

Like everyone, Reverend Jones had the moral obligation to consider the likely results of his behavior to the best of his rational powers. Jones is mistaken in his theological views but is not, it would seem, psychotic.  Certainly the rioting and violent mobs are responsible for at least contributing to the state of affairs where fatalities were a more likely if not foreseeable outcome. But are the mullahs who inflamed and urged their flocks to take to the streets less morally responsible than the those who struck the fatal blows? Perhaps even more so. Neither Jones nor the mullas killed by their own hands but their acts and immoral intents are identical if not in their level of guilt but in that they were all motivated by hatred and the wish to do harm and achieved willful and moral depravity. Had the result been just op eds in the NY Times and peaceful protests Jones and the mullas intents would have been no less depraved. Are there any reprehensible acts are not morally wrong?

#2 Stormy Fairweather on Saturday April 09, 2011 at 9:33pm

Well said Michael.

I named my cat Nigger for similar reasons. My right to free speech is more important than any abstract sense of proprieties.

(The other half of that reason is to draw focus on the double standard that makes it so that ONLY white people are penalized for even the (mis)perception of racism. See the UCLA student who criticized asians.)

You can alway choose not to associate with people that offend you, but you cannot always choose to avoid being lynched by a mob of insane fanatics whipped up into a frenzy because it is not human rights or life they respect.

Solution? I speculate that less insane fanatics would be the direction needed to be taken to solve this.

#3 gray1 on Sunday April 10, 2011 at 9:06pm

For some reason I don’t associate book burnings with the furthering of Christianity.  I see where Nazis made a big deal of doing it, but I forget their purpose in doing so.  Perhaps someone with a better historical perspective can help.  The “preacher” had problems with the Koran?  Apparently he also has problems with the Christian Bible.  Will he burn that book next?

#4 DavidJcq on Tuesday April 12, 2011 at 7:45am

You can’t blame free speach for what happened. Extreme Muslims in the UK burn the U.S flag and torment the familys of our war dead. But no-one in the UK has started attacking or beheading them.

#5 BoBo (Guest) on Wednesday April 13, 2011 at 10:45pm

I don’t blame free speech in as much as I don’t blame a loaded gun laying on the kitchen counter for killing someone. Then put it in the hands of a lunatic. We seem to keep forgetting the word Personal Responsibility.

#6 val eisman (Guest) on Thursday April 14, 2011 at 6:49am

Let’s all ignore the fact of the context of what is happening to Muslims around the country and hundreds and thousands being murdered throughout the Middle East in US illegal wars of occupation and pretend these are all free speech and religious issues.  That despite our murderous drone attacks, despite the fact that we have killed over 166,000 in Iraq, murdrered hundreds of innocent Pakistan civilians in drone attacks in Northern Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, that this is ONLY about religious.

Oh, how smug and self-righteous you all most feel living in a society where Bradley Manning is forced to sleep naked at night in a cell held in isolation because we believe in free speech.  Where we uphold free speech in the US and spend millions murdering other people who don’t. 

Yes, our dedication to hatred of religion (and intolerance of religious fanatics) to the point where we have created literally millions of refugees now from wars in the middle East make us freedom of speech lovers (and lovers of wars and bombing those nonfreedom lovers abroad), so morally advanced and superior as a state and nation that peoples around the world just love and respect us so much for our hypocrisy, hubris and arrogance.

Now carry on in your political vaccum discussing things out of context of 3 major US wars and the increased killings of the US military in Afghanistan with no mention of drone attacks.  I’m certain that political reality has no place in any of your selected abstracted discussions of “free speech”.  Yes, US foreign policy has no place at all in this discussion nor the attempt to impose Western beliefs and cultures by military force on peoples around the world.

It’s good to always discuss things in a political vaccum apart from the rest of the human experience in AFgahnistan where over one quarter of a million war widows of the US 10 year war have no means of support economic support of themselves or their children.  Murder of US colonialists/imperialists provocateurs posing as free speech advocates is so much more important than a murderous military policy out of control.  Yes, free speech trumps imperialist murder and devastation in CFI.

What a pack of immoral smug hypocrites you all are!

#7 Guest (Guest) on Monday April 18, 2011 at 12:41am

Michael, a serious question. You say that the responsibility and blame for these murders falls upon the people who committed them, as they are human beings with brains and free will who actively chose to kill those people. You say that Terry Jones couldn’t have been expected to foresee what would happen, even in a highly conservative Muslim nation. 

I would be inclined to agree in most cases. The fact is, though, that Jones could know. When the original proposed Burn a Koran Day occurred, Muslims threatened to kill ten Christians for every LETTER of the Koran that was burnt. That is why Jones, if memory serves, chose to cancel the original event. Immense public pressure also played a part, of course.

Given this, don’t you think expecting violence was a reasonable assumption? That’s a foreseeable outcome. He had to have known that it would have lead to a very strong backlash, at the very least.

And another thing. Aren’t people who are so irrational and blind, in a weird way, not to blame for having a knee jerk reaction? If I kicked a dog, I would expect it to attack me or someone else and wouldn’t hold it morally responsible for it. Aren’t zealots like these people a little like that? You know something will make them angry. You know what they are likely to do. You know what they have already threatened to do. Isn’t the blame, then, on you?

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