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.