Commentary: Burning the Quran is a bad idea
Here's a really bad idea: Burn the Koran to send a message.
Exactly what message is being sent is a matter of some debate. The 50-member "Dove World Outreach Center" and its pastor, Terry Jones, claim that "it's maybe the right time for America to stand up. How long are we going to bow down? How long are we going to be controlled by the terrorists, by radical Islam?"
Gen. David Petraeus, who is responsible for the lives of American men and women serving in Afghanistan, sees it rather differently: "Images 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. ... Even the rumor that it might take place has sparked demonstrations... Were the actual burning to take place, the safety of our soldiers and civilians would be put in jeopardy and accomplishment of the mission would be made more difficult."
The issue here isn't who is right. Petraeus is right. The issue is what to do about Jones and his congregants and their unnamed supporters.
"We will not be responsible," Jones has said in reaction to the concern that his acts could cause Americans to die. "We are only reacting to the violence that is already there in that religion."
The First Amendment protects the right of every American to practice their religion freely, whether Jones approves of it or not. The same First Amendment, of course, protects Jones' right to protest the beliefs of that religion, however offensive those protests are to any sensible person.
But the protection of the First Amendment is not absolute. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously put it, no one has a right to scream "fire" in a crowded theater (unless there is one). Whether spoken or symbolic, speech that presents a clear and present danger of causing violence, or is likely to cause imminent violence, has long been subject to regulation. On occasion, such regulation has gone too far. The more afraid we are -- whether of Communism in the 50s or terrorism in the past decade -- the stronger the impulse to see imminent threats.
In these times, it is important to remember that terrorism is our enemy, not Muslims; that if we make Islam the enemy instead of extremism, if we turn law-abiding Muslims against us by attacking their religion instead of attacking terrorists, we will be fighting a war we can only lose. It is important, in short, to reaffirm that the Constitution does indeed protect the rights of Muslims to practice their religion, which is far more vulnerable right now than the right of Terry Jones to try to stop them.
Jones is entitled to his views. He is entitled to express them peaceably. He is entitled to hold demonstrations and make speeches, even if what he says strikes me, and many others, as shortsighted and wrong.
But he does not have the right to endanger American lives. He may not want to accept responsibility for the consequences of his acts, but the rest of us are entitled to impose it on him. Not one American life should be lost because of the irresponsible action of Terry Jones. If attention is what he is after -- and I don't doubt it is -- he's got it. Everyone around the world has heard of him and his 50 members. We know what they think. He's sent his message loud and clear.
But there are limits.
Burning a Koran goes beyond lawful protest. It is, with tens of thousands of Americans in harm's way, the modern equivalent of crying fire in a crowded theater. And it should be stopped.
Susan Estrich's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.