The Devil in Mr Jones

Codex Gigas (The Devil Codex)

Since I posted my commentary on the Terry Jones case I’ve received lots of feedback–mainly attempts to vindicate Jones and wondering why I am “coddling Muslims.”  I like the term feedback because it doesn’t discriminate as to the quality of responses.  Some were actually very insightful–the ones laying out, for example, the conditions for incitement and sedition; some less so–the ones that simply insist that we are citizens of a democracy that values free speech above everything else. I’ve received no recipes for coddled Muslims, but I’m sure they’ll be coming soon.

Often misquoted, in the United States v. Schenck case (1919: involving a man’s distribution of anti-draft flyers during World War I), Justice Holmes wrote that

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater 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.

“Falsely” is the word that is often omitted. What emerged was the “clear and present danger test,”  since weakened and greatly modified.

I’m reliably informed by no fewer than three lawyer-respondents and my buddy Guido that its successor, the “imminent lawless action” criterion, cannot reasonably be applied in this case because the damage and the loss of human life, even though preventable, did not transpire on American soil and that under current law (Hess v. Indiana [1973], Brandenburg v. Ohio [1969]), Jones would likely be given a pass.

And even though Americans, according to groups claiming responsibility, including Afghani Taliban, were the target (United Nations workers were an easier and softer hit), so far (April 5th) American soldiers did not die as a result of this provocation.  On the other hand, those who have replied that it was not Jones’s intention to do harm have not been following the story closely enough: he is quoted in the Washington Post as saying that after due consideration he felt he had no choice, and was only indecisive as to the method of execution (drowning, shredding, or shooting).  Fire is always the first choice of southern Christian bigots. And there is the small matter of his careful plans to broadcast the events in English and Arabic.

But my guess is that Terry Jones will become a kind of hero.  He already is to his congregation and thousands of well-wishing ultra-conservative Christians around the country. And much more cheaply than buying billboards, his gallon of kerosene has ignited his “Stand up for America” campaign.

But I hope he will not become a culture-hero to people who see his actions as brave and somehow correct–as a test case of the right to express hatred in equal measure to the religious population of a country where American lives are being lost each week in defense of democratic principles that the Afghan people, like the Iraqis before them, have shown no natural interest in pursuing on their own.  I am highly distrustful of the respondents who say they “disagree” with Terry Jones, but approve of the principle.  What principle?  That Islam is evil and he is no more evil than it is?  Or that his example serves as proof to the world (as if it cares) that America is the beacon for the unfettered right to speak even the most hateful and dwarfish ideas openly?

Terry Jones is not fighting for a principle.  He’s merely hiding behind one. It seems plain tawdry to invoke the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on behalf of a listless cracker who wants to see people killed seven  thousand miles away from his sanctuary.

A weird  undercurrent of responses has seen Jones as a symbol of the cowboy freedom to shoot the people who get on his nerves. It’s hardly a mariage de covenance (like the one between anti-abortion Catholics and fundamentalists), but Islam is regarded by right wing Christians, as well as by many atheists, as a toxic faith, so the symbol works for both constituencies in slightly different ways. When Jones sells the movie rights to his saga of upward struggle against the forces of Satan and his lonely coup de grace for freedom and democracy in this sin-loving land, the part should go to (no relation) Tommy Lee Jones.

There are two propositions that keep me away from reducing this episode to just another example of hate speech or civil disobedience, on the analogy of the Klan marching through Skokie in 2000 or burning draft cards in 1969 or the Haymarket riots of 1886.   The difference may not be immediately obvious, or compelling, but it is a difference.

If Mr Jones had staged his execution of the Koran, “a work of the Devil,” in 1969, it would have been the shot heard round Lake City, Florida.  No one would have cared; few people would have known.  It would have the resonance of a wooden clapper.  As a Florida boy myself, I can easily imagine a woman outside the Lake City Winn-Dixie store saying, “He burned the whut?” But it did not happen in 1969.  It happened in the age of rapid information-transfer, and sudden celebrity–the age and space that Jones is counting on to raise him from evangelical crackerdom to national guru.  I see Dancing with the Stars down the road for this guy and I pray that his partner will be someone named Aisha.

The Amendment we depend upon to protect us from slander while, at the same time, defending our right to blaspheme, criticize, oppose, peaceably assemble and demonstrate was carved at a time when America was relatively isolated from the foreign effects of domestic action.  Even though the polemic was hot and strong throughout the pre-Revolutionary era (one of the reasons the First Amendment exists at all) reaction was slow because news traveled that way.

I think there is something qualitatively different about Jones and the way he does business, and it has to be acknowledged. There is something different about what constitutes “imminent and likely lawless action” in an age where cause and effect have been reduced to days, sometimes seconds.  And one day the courts will have to deal with it–but not yet. Jones’s only miscalculation in this case was that the media wasn’t paying attention to him anymore, so he had to try doubly hard to get the word out.  He was duly abetted by Hamid Karzai.

As to preserving free speech against the odds of too much sway in the direction of controlling it: As a Christian triumphalist, Jones would like nothing more than an America in which the very thing he was permited to do could not be done.  A sheer increase of the Terry Joneses of this country–among people who now see his action as noble–would lead to a Christian state wherein it would, at a minimum, be illegal to burn a Bible or insult a man of the cloth, or more precisely, the evangelical cloth. Atheism in Jonestown, USA? As likely as a women’s right to education act under the Pakistani Taliban.

No one realistically thinks that this kind of America is coming, least of all me.  But it is an interesting test of priorities that condemning Jones’s action as being fundamentally opposed to the cardinal American values of freedom and tolerance  should be immediately seen as a complaint about hypothetical “infringement” of Mr Jones’s rights, without any equivalent assessment of what he did and the way he did it.  –I’m reluctant to mention the one muddled response that compared Jones’s burning of the Koran to the 1933 (fol.) book burnings in Nazi Germany because, frankly, I couldn’t understand the premise.

The way the Rev did it was to make sure that Muslims were paying attention.  When he streamed the “trial” and execution of the book, with some hapless imam from Dallas acting as a defense atttorney, he dressed in judge’s robes.  He streamed the proceedings with Arabic subtitles.  Those are the facts; I am guessing, but cannot know for sure, that he was also trying to convey an impression of “authenticity” to the web-viewers, as though to suggest this was a real trial.  Given the limited sophistication of the Arab street, this would not have been a difficult thing to do.

So, this was not an act confined to the churchyard; this was a belligerent act designed to do harm, to substantiate his weird metaphysic about Islamic violence, and he was right: harm was done. People are dead. or should I say, more people are dead.  Now to search “Koran Burning” on Youtube will link you to dozens of copycat rituals going on all over the world.  Congratulations, Mr Jones: you are a success because this is how we now measure success, the degree of lunacy that a single image can generate.

After further thought, however, I have decided that Mr Jones is really being judged by the wrong criteria.  His case falls between free exercise and free speech, and so it falls between the stools.  Holmes’s aphorism about “clear and present danger,” and all later refinements, are not going to help us with the Terry Jones case, unless he magically appears in Kandahar and starts shooting Muslims.  Even then, alas, he would likely find supporters back home and die a hero.

I’ve asked a number of respondents if they think Jones is “guilty” of anything other than bad judgement.   Law and ethics are not only two different areas but fields that often collide on principles. If law does not help us with this one, is there a moral position that can be condemned–or vindicated?  Is Mr Jones “just a cracker” and his actions as predictable, and thus as unremarkable, as the predictable response of angry young men in Afghanistan?  After all, we have become accustomed, to the point of dozing off, to images of angry, mainly young Muslim men all over the Islamic world.

I don’t fully understand the pathology of their anger, but I do know that the symbolic respository for what they are willing to die and to kill to defend is the Koran. I also think I know that lectures on God’s existence or their foolish and superstitious ways are not going to get their attention.

19 thoughts on “The Devil in Mr Jones

  1. This is a case of shouting fire in a burning theater. In America, our right to mock, insult and blaspheme against Christianity is pretty secure. But we have now entered a dangerous period where our right to criticize a religion depends on which religion we are criticizing. All religions are fair game. Period. The same goes for all political ideologies, all philosophies, etc.

    Forget Terry Jones. What about Molly Norris? What about the censorship of South Park? What about American newspapers refusing to run a major syndicated strip (Non Sequitur) for fear of insulting Islam? What about the case of Derek Fenton, who was fired from his job as a public employee because he burned a Koran?

      • @ Apuleius: “But we have now entered a dangerous period where our right to criticize a religion depends on which religion we are criticizing. All religions are fair game. Period. The same goes for all political ideologies, all philosophies, etc.” I couldn’t agree more–and I enjoy ridicule myself when it’s warranted–a powerful and useful tool of correction, like satire.

  2. I also think I know that lectures on God’s existence or their foolish and superstitious ways are not going to get their attention.

    What will get their attention? Accepting the Islamic contribution to science? The superiority of Sharia over all legal systems? How theirs is really a religion of peace?

  3. Before we can discuss responsibility, it might be helpful to consider causality. To start with, if the execrable bozo Jones had not performed this act, would the resulting violence have taken place? The key element which Hoffmann has ignored is that the the action which precipitated the murders was not Jones’ book-burning, but Afghan President Karzai’s speech drawing attention to Jones. Most analyses of Karzai’s extraordinary decision to foment popular anger against the US have suggested that he did this for purely domestic political reasons, and that Jones simply provided a convenient match to toss on the tinder. If Jones had not acted, Karzai would have found some other way of stirring up the mob.

    From this perspective, blaming Jones for the violence in Afghanistan is a bit like holding Gavrilo Princip responsible for the Great War.

    • Hi Geoff–I like your approach, to a point, but in today’s blog I do finger Karzai. What I won’t accept is that what philosophers like to call instrumental cause isn’t relevant–or that given a certain quantum of violence in Islam anyway, who can blame a poor cracker pastor for being a poor cracker pastor. Do I acquit the murderers? Of course not. Are many people who are writing in ignoring the murdered. Oh my, yes. But back to Karzai: by all means yes. / Just re-read: this was a comment on today’s post? How did you miss the reference?

  4. [Reposted – delete last, please]

    I missed the reference because I was posting a response to yesterday’s piece but inadvertently appended it to today’s. Too many posts, so little time.

    And this reminds me of an aspect of the blog-and-comment medium which bugs me. Many blogs pieces, and most comments, are necessarily brief, and many are written in haste. It seems unreasonable to expect them to cover all the angles, and disambiguate every potentially unclear phrase. And yet your write:

    Are many people who are writing in ignoring the murdered. Oh my, yes.

    Nonsense. Just because they do not mention the murdered in every blog comment does not mean that they are ignoring them. That’s a wholly unwarranted inference… or else it sets the bar for participation too high for most of us.

  5. Pingback: An Atheist Versus Terry Jones « Seth's World

  6. It is one thing to condemn Jones as an idiot and an asshole; it is quite another to demand legal sanctions (and this seems to be what you are in favor of.) Once the precedent is established, the Jihadist clerics will comb the press, looking for something to take offense at, whip up their followers, and kill a few people in the hopes of triggering a legal prosecution.

    The long term goal will be to build a wall of censorship around Islam. But the most immediate result of such a precedent will be more deaths–a lot more–because we will have proven to them that murder works. Be careful of what you wish for. If you get your wish, you will end up killing a lot more people than Terry Jones did.

  7. rjosephhoffmann: “On the other hand, those who have replied that it was not Jones’s intention to do harm have not been following the story closely enough: he is quoted in the Washington Post as saying that after due consideration he felt he had no choice, and was only indecisive as to the method of execution (drowning, shredding, or shooting).”

    That Washington Post link is pretty thin evidence for the intent you claim Jones had. Nor does it appear that he was quoted at all saying “he felt he had no choice”.

    Washington Post: “Jones, 59, had considered the possibility that burning the text might elicit a violent response and that innocent people might be killed. In his characteristic drawl — a slow-motion delivery that seems incongruous with the church’s fiery rhetoric — the pastor said the church also debated whether to shred the book, shoot it or dunk it in water instead of burning it.”

    This seems to imply (weakly) that “people might be killed” was considered as an acceptable cost rather than the intent.

      • It would not be surprising to me that the Jones had the intent you claim.

        But the Washington Post link you used to rebut the “those who have replied that it was not Jones’s intention to do harm” fails to do so.

  8. It would seem that “falsely shouting fire” would only pertain to Jones if Jones was saying something he actually thought was false.

    Someone shouting in the case of an actual fire might consider that people could get hurt but choose to do it anyway.

      • People manage to convince themselves that all sorts of wacky things are true.

        It seems to be what he is saying.

        Washington Post: “Luke Jones said. ‘We’re just simple people trying to do the right thing.'”

        If one takes his claims of intent as being accurate, why not take his claims as there being a fire accurate too?

      • I honestly don’t know, Dave: If this is true, it might be more troubling because it would mean than the country must tolerate the ignorance of well-meaning (in their calculus) idiots whose actions can be disastrous abroad. I do not want any restrictions on free speech–obviously–but there is a question in my mind if the free exercise clause, which is also at issue here–has been breached. E.g., free exercise isn’t extended to Mormons, or to churches that advocate biblical standards of punishment. In any case, I don’t think cases like Jones show the strength of the Constitution; I think they demonstrate its liabilities.

  9. rjosephhoffmann: “In any case, I don’t think cases like Jones show the strength of the Constitution; I think they demonstrate its liabilities.”

    Yes, but you are missing the important other part!

    One has to look at the real purpose of a government to allow free speech.

    The whole point of tolerating such liabilities (the “wrong” free speech) is to make sure that the benefits (the “right” free speech) are not suppressed!

    Historically, it seems quite easy for governments to convince their citizens that the “right” free speech is the “wrong” free speech.

    The purpose of a government to enable the “right” free speech. The “wrong” free speech is tolerated as a cost.

    It’s analogous to the premise behind “innocent until proven guilty”, which similarly allows guilty people to go free to try to make sure that innocent people are not punished.

  10. The broader societal purpose of free speech is to keep the “right” free speech from being suppressed by people/groups who might be sincere (but wrong) or dishonest but convincing.

    The real issue is that there is no completely reliable method that can determine what free speech is the “right” kind.

    In this case (Jones), it’s hard to say who is more to blame for this tragedy: some nut 2 weeks/10,000 miles from the incident or the on-location, repeat-offender demagogues who exploited the event.

    (feel free to append this to the my prior post.)

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