I've written several books. They're deeply meaningful to me, because I put so much work into them. But if I heard that someone was planning to burn hundreds of copies of a book I wrote, it wouldn't freak me out so much that I'd riot, pillage, or kill.
(In fact, I'd be happy that so many books had been bought in order to be burned. Yay, more royalties!)
Yet when Christian pastor Terry Jones laid out his plans to burn a bunch of Korans (a.k.a. Qur'ans) tomorrow, 9/11, the proverbial shit hit the proverbial fan. He got calls from the Secretary of Defense and the President of the United States asking him to hold off.
It was agreed that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects free speech, and book burning falls under this general rubric. Yet burning the Koran was viewed as a really bad thing to do, because it would inflame the religious passions of many Muslims:
President Barack Obama on Friday appealed to Americans to respect the "inalienable" right of religious freedom and expressed hope a Florida Christian preacher would abandon a plan to burn the Koran that could deeply hurt the United States abroad.
News of the plan has already outraged many Muslims around the world and triggered violent protests in Afghanistan in which one protester was shot dead.
"This is a way of endangering our troops, our sons and daughters ... you don't play games with that," Obama told a Washington news conference in which he included an earnest appeal for religious tolerance in the United States to preserve multi-faith harmony.
Well, I'm all for multi-faith harmony. Up to a point.
If "harmony" means never offending the feelings of someone who holds a certain religious belief, then giving up freedom of expression is too high a price to pay for a superficial level of getting-along.
I'm not endorsing the burning of religious books. Or any books. However, we can't allow the craziest, wacked-out fringe of religious believers to control how everybody else behaves.
Lots of U.S. citizens feel that our country's flag is quasi-sacred. Yet when America-haters in other countries burn it, you don't see Americans taking to the streets in violent protests.
Ditto when an artist exhibited Piss Christ, a photograph of a plastic crucifix immersed in the guy's urine. That was offensive to many Christians, but so far as I know the artist was never threatened with bodily harm (though some people tried to destroy the photograph).
Pastor Jones looks like a irritatingly fundamentalist Christian extremist to me. Whenever I see him on TV, I think, "That guy is a jerk."
So it bothers me that Jones got so much attention out of his Koran-burning stunt. The only reason he did, seemingly, is that there are so many equally irritating Muslim fundamentalist extremists who would go crazy if a bunch of their holy books were turned into ashes.
They didn't like "Draw Mohammed Day" either. How far are we supposed to go in trying to not offend members of the many different sorts of religions on Earth?
My basic attitude is, deal with it. You're free to practice your own religion, but you're not free to prevent other people from ridiculing, demeaning, criticizing, or making fun of your religion.
If they do, and they aren't directly attacking you, deal with it -- by getting on with your religious practice, and ignoring the disparaging.
Here's how blogger P.Z. Myers puts it in his "Setting the Koran on fire, vs. setting personal liberties on fire."
The United States does have an obligation to protect the basic and fundamental rights of all Americans, and that includes allowing them to burn their own property, in addition to allowing them to practice the religion of their choice.
Here's a hint for appropriate responses. When someone tells you it's an outrage to burn a bible or a Koran, shrug your shoulders and say, "So what? It's their own book." When someone announces that they are going to riot and murder because they are offended, look at them like they're insane, and explain that offending someone is not a capital crime.
The problem isn't a few books being burned; that's not a crime, and it doesn't diminish anyone else's personal freedoms. The problem is a whole fleet of deranged wackaloons, including the president of the USA in addition to raving fundamentalist fanatics, who think open, public criticism and disagreement ought to be forbidden, somehow.
I can understand why so many people were concerned about the negative effects on America's image, and the danger to American troops, from Pastor Jones' plan to burn Korans.
Practically speaking, it was a stupid thing to do -- just as practically speaking, it wouldn't be wise for me to park my Suzuki Burgman maxi-scooter at a biker bar, walk in, and start bad-mouthing Harley Davidson motorcycles while sitting next to "Tiny" (who would be the opposite of his nickname).
But this is a different thing from talking about the pros and cons of Japanese scooters versus American bikes, and poking fun at Harley riders. Which I've done on my blog.
Free speech comes in various flavors. I don't want us to surrender our right to disparage or make fun of some religion just because some true believers will get offended.
Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, got it right in talking about Pastor Jones:
In a strange way, I'm here to defend his right to do that. I happen to think that it is distasteful. I don't think he would like it if somebody burnt a book that in his religion he thinks is holy. I think Gen. Petraeus pointed out that this perhaps puts our young men and women overseas and America itself in greater danger than it was already.
But the First Amendment protects everybody, and you can't say that we're going to apply the First Amendment to only those cases where we are in agreement. If you want to be able to say what you want to say when the time comes that you want to say it, you have to defend others, no matter how, how much you disagree with them.