Terry Jones and What We’re Fighting For

The duty to defend "hateful, extremely disrespectful, and enormously intolerant" expression.

Andrew Exum, who did stints as an Army Ranger officer in both Afghanistan and Iraq, has a longish post on the Terry Jones affair. His conclusion is spot on:

We keep organized religion out of government, to protect the integrity of the government, and we keep the government out of organized worship, to protect a man’s freedom to worship God – or not worship God – as he pleases.

This is who we are as America. This is our DNA. Yesterday, I argued that we had some tough questions to ask about how much blood and treasure we should spend to promote the rights of women in Afghanistan. That’s an honest question we have to ask ourselves because our values balance against and compete with our security interests and other priorities. But with respect to Terry Jones, we have to defend his right to burn the Quran to the last one of us, no matter how foolish he is and no matter how much havoc he creates.

If opportunist clerics want to inflame a crowd in Afghanistan because one idiot out of 300+ million Americans does something grotesque and stupid, fine. In the YouTube era, there is nothing the U.S. government can do to prevent such gross provocations aside from denounce them ex post facto, and we are all, as global citizens, adjusting to this new reality where a speech act in the state of Florida can lead to a massacre in Balkh Province. But when the first U.S. soldier in Afghanistan dies because of the actions of Terry Jones, we can take comfort in that fact that he or she will not have died in vain. He or she will have died defending the very document he or she swore to protect in the first place.

We’ve had some spirited discussion on the Terry Jones affair over the last few days, with even the front page posters not agreeing with one another on the degree of Jones’ culpability in the atrocities in Afghanistan that his actions helped fuel. These are visceral issues and we’ll likely never agree.

I’m a near-absolutist on free speech, a position not uncommon in America but baffling in most of the world. Steve Hynd notes that Jones could be arrested for his actions in the UK–and Canada and much of Continental Europe, for that matter. And those are hardly totalitarian societies. In America, though, people have a legal right to express any idea they please, no matter how despicable or hurtful it may be to others. Absent very narrow sorts of incitement, the police here have a duty to protect the likes of Terry Jones or Fred Phelps from the anger of the mob.

And this is why I disagree with the recent remarks of General David Petraeus–a man who I respect and admire enormously–on this matter. He’s no doubt right that Jones’ scumbaggery makes his own job harder and compromises his mission. But his larger duty is to the Constitution of the United States, which he took a sacred oath to defend. Winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan population would be a nice thing to achieve, but we’ll get on fine regardless. The right of Americans to free expression, however, is at the core of the Republic and we can’t yield an inch of that to murdering extremists in Afghanistan–or anywhere else.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jack says:

    In the same way that you are a free speech absolutist, I’m an anti-torture absolutist, yet there is always some yahoo who brings up the Hollywood “ticking time bomb” scenario as if that argument makes torture OK. Unfortunately, the use of torture has been made “discussable” in a way I never thought would be possible 20 years ago.

    What does this have to do with Terry Jones? Well, if I understand correctly, we do have laws that regulate speech in the form of “incitement to violence”. These laws do NOT absolve those who commit the violence, but they do hold responsible those who incite it through their speech.

    Do I feel Terry Jones should be arrested? No. But I do feel he does hold some level of responsibility for the reasonably foreseeable consequences of his speech and actions.

  2. Tano says:

    But when the first U.S. soldier in Afghanistan dies because of the actions of Terry Jones, we can take comfort in that fact that he or she will not have died in vain. He or she will have died defending the very document he or she swore to protect in the first place.

    Visceral issues indeed. This passage makes me want to just throw up. It is such exploitative BS.

    Said soldier will not have died protecting our rights – he will have died because some Americans are intent on using the modern media culture to insult and taunt the people we are trying to help in Afghanistan, telling them that the goals and ideals of the United States are very different than what our government and out troops proclaim them to be, and that in fact we, as a nation, hold all of them in utter contempt.

    Once again – the main lines of the dispute in these pages over the past week have not been about any effort to deny Jones his first amendment rights. No one writing here has demanded his imprisonment or prosecution. We have insisted merely that all responsible citizens, and most importantly the government in an official capacity, make absolutely clear that Jones does not speak for us, for our country. And that the man has enormous moral culpability for the consequences that he intentionally set in motion.

    I certainly am a die-hard supporter of first amendment rights, but I do not see any sense in which Mr. Jones rights are under assault here. What did Petreaus specifically say in the article that you link James?

    Here are the only quotes I found there

    “Every security force leader’s worst nightmare is being confronted by essentially a mob, if you will, especially one that can be influenced by individuals that want to incite violence, who want to try to hijack passions, in this case, perhaps understandable passions,”

    “Obviously it’s an additional serious security challenge in a country that faces considerable security challenges.”

    “This was a surprise,” Gen. Petraeus said. The Quran burning in Florida, he added, was “hateful, extremely disrespectful and enormously intolerant”

    Seems spot-on in all three cases. How do you interpret this as any threat to Jones’s liberty? How do you interpret this as any threat to hold him legally accountable?

    How can you have the nerve to imply that somehow those of us on the other side of this question from you are somehow disrespectful of First Amendment freedoms?

  3. James Joyner says:

    @Tano: I’m not at all arguing that everyone who disagrees with me are disrespectful of freedoms, although some clearly are. Including some in our government, like Lindsay Graham and Harry Reid.

    If Private Citizen Petraeus said that, I’d mostly agree. I would quibble only on the “perhaps understandable” bit, as it comes dangerously close to excusing mass murder. But it’s not his place to judge whether his bosses are hateful, disrespectful, or intolerance; he’s simply there to defend the Constitution.

  4. Boyd says:

    General Petraeus’s comment reminds me of a statement by one of my former Commanding Officers: “We swore to defend the Constitution. We don’t actually believe in it.”

  5. Tano says:

    I would quibble only on the “perhaps understandable” bit,

    The phrase refers to the feelings generated by the insult, not the hijacking behavior of those who try to exploit the feelings.

    it’s not his place to judge whether his bosses are hateful, disrespectful, or intolerance; he’s simply there to defend the Constitution.

    Not just defend the Constitution – he is also there for somewhat more concrete reasons – say, the successful completion of his mission while doing all he can to minimize casualties amongst our forces. It would be downright absurd for him to be prevented from telling some of his bosses the blunt truth about how their behavior is impacting the war efforts and the security of our forces.

    The First Amendment protects the right to speech. It does not establish a right not to be vociferously denounced for hateful and destructive speech – including by those who hold positions of responsibility in our government. Until you show me someone who is demanding that Jones be arrested, you have not established even the first step toward a legitimate argument here.

  6. TG Chicago says:

    Do you believe this part of Exum’s conclusion is spot on?

    …there is nothing the U.S. government can do to prevent such gross provocations aside from denounce them ex post facto…

    I thought you were against denunciations. Did I misunderstand?

  7. Rock says:

    In all of this the thing I never could and never will understand is why I hell are we in the western world so damn afraid of Muslims, Islam and their sensitivities? Why? On the other hand, why in hell are we also afraid of Christianity? Apparently Islam is above criticism and Christianity has become an obscene religion to be confined to the dark realms of history and contained by the First Amendment and cannot be tolerated. This despite the brutal savagery displayed by Muslims in the name of Islam in the last few days.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @TG Chicago: “I thought you were against denunciations. Did I misunderstand?”

    It defends on from whom and in what form.

    I pretty much think serving officers should STFU and do their job. Petraeus’ talk about “additional security challenges” is fine. But it’s just not his place to condemn the content of speech.

    In the cases of completely protected speech–which all seem to agree this is–think presidents can issue blanket denunciations of bigotry, etc. and explain that the American ideal is tolerance for all religions and so forth. Obama actually hit exactly the right balance in that regard.

    I think presidents have more leeway in the case of direct exchanges. So, if Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck–or, in the case of the prior administration, Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore–are getting a lot of attention for specious attacks on the president, they’ve got some latitude in responding public figure to public figure. And, certainly, it’s game on for politician vs. politician.

    All of the above goes out the window in case of expressing ideas in criminal ways. When thought crosses the line into violence, leaders of all stripes have an obligation to denounce it.

  9. mantis says:

    The duty to defend “hateful, extremely disrespectful, and enormously intolerant” expression.

    There’s no duty to defend the expression, only the right to it. I don’t defend in any way Jones’s jackassery, but he certainly has the right to be a jackass, and that right should be defended.

    And this is why I disagree with the recent remarks of General David Petraeus–a man who I respect and admire enormously–on this matter. He’s no doubt right that Jones’ scumbaggery makes his own job harder and compromises his mission. But his larger duty is to the Constitution of the United States, which he took a sacred oath to defend. Winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan population would be a nice thing to achieve, but we’ll get on fine regardless. The right of Americans to free expression, however, is at the core of the Republic and we can’t yield an inch of that to murdering extremists in Afghanistan–or anywhere else.

    Petraeus did not threaten that right at all. He pointed out the consequences of Constitutionally-protected stupidity. Nothing wrong with that.

  10. M1EK says:

    Actually, if you’re that much of a “I’m defending this document” guy, one could question why you’re in Afghanistan at all, although it’s far more defensible than being in Iraq or Libya at least. The Constitution, were it anthromorphicized, would be horrified at the thought that we’ve been in that country fighting a war for ten years now with no actual declaration of war by Congress.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @mantis: As noted upthread, I’m very, very leery of military officers commenting on the quality of the ideas of Americans’ speech.

    @M1EK: Libya is a better case. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress authorized the use of force, which is for all Constitutional purposes the same as a Declaration of War. (I think we should be out of all three. I just think Congress approved the first two and has largely ceded the power of short wars to the president.)

  12. Tano says:

    There’s no duty to defend the expression, only the right to it.

    Excellent point, and a crucial distinction.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @mantis and @tano: We don’t disagree on the expression/content distinction. I’ve been condemning Jones’ content since well before the atrocities in Afghanistan. I’m just leery of public officials, and especially sitting officers, condemning Americans for mere speech.

  14. Tano says:

    I’m just leery of public officials, and especially sitting officers, condemning Americans for mere speech.

    Being “leery” is fine. Claiming that they have no right to condemn is something else. And the speech is not “mere speech” when it is calculated to provoke mayhem and succeeds in doing so.

  15. RWB says:

    I am glad to see how committed we are in defending everyone’s right to free speech. Now lets substitute the words “burn the American flag” for “burn the Koran” and see where the discussion goes.

  16. James Joyner says:

    @RWB: “Now lets substitute the words “burn the American flag” for “burn the Koran” and see where the discussion goes.”

    The one’s actually long since settled. The Supreme Court affirmed that right way back when I was in airborne school in 1989. And I thought there were right even as a much more traditionalist 23-year-old.

    @Tano: It’s mere speech unless it crosses lines we’ve agreed to over time. This doesn’t. The only reason it’s provoking mayhem is for the content of the speech.

  17. RWB says:

    It is not about free speech, it is about taking responsibility for your actions. I believe that you have a right to provocative speech, but you are responsible for the response you provoke. You have a right to burn an American flag as an act of free speech. When someone whose father died protecting that flag punches you in the face, you have no right to complain, it is your own fault. If you burn a Koran , you have a right to do so, but you are also responsible for the deaths you provoke.

    Freedom does not remove responsibility. Terry Jones is responsible for those deaths. He will be responsible for the death of American soldiers. Once he understands that, he may self censor.

    You are not responsible for the results of your actions is a real liberal-lefty kind of response.

  18. George Kirkman says:

    “because one idiot out of 300+ million Americans does something grotesque and stupid, ”

    So people that exercise their Constitutional rights are idiots and stupid?

  19. George Kirkman says:

    “the degree of Jones’ culpability in the atrocities in Afghanistan that his actions helped fuel”

    I agree Rev Jones is directly responsible for the deaths in Afghanistan. The rioters and murders were just innocent victims of his hate crime and had no responsibility for the attacks they committed. Rev Jones should have no protection under the US Constitution and be tried and executed according to Sharia law.

  20. Tano says:

    You are not responsible for the results of your actions is a real liberal-lefty kind of response.

    Obviously not. It is a libertarian response.

  21. Tano says:

    It’s mere speech unless it crosses lines we’ve agreed to over time. This doesn’t.

    Once again, James, that is only relevant to the question of legal culpability, which no one is arguing. You may not be able to establish incitement under the law, so no prosecution is being advocated by anyone. But in a moral sense, the issue is perfectly clear. Jones wanted to provoke mayhem, and he did. People died. I cannot understand how you can continue to ignore that reality. Nor why you would force Petreaus into silence when he reports back his assessment of the impact of these acts.

    The only reason it’s provoking mayhem is for the content of the speech.

    Yeah?? What do you mean by this statement? Of course it is the content of the speech – that is what is being denounced.
    Once again, no one is trying to take away the right to speak.

  22. mantis says:

    So people that exercise their Constitutional rights are idiots and stupid?

    Some of them certainly are. You disagree?

  23. Boyd says:

    @Tano: Please don’t read this as being snarky, because that’s not my intent, but what is supposed to be the benefit of this denouncing, regardless of who performs it?

  24. mantis says:

    what is supposed to be the benefit of this denouncing

    To dissuade others from doing such stupid things, maybe?

  25. Boyd says:

    To dissuade others from doing such stupid things, maybe?

    Hmm. Well, okay. Doesn’t seem like it’s much of a benefit, because it probably won’t dissuade many folks who would otherwise be inclined to pursue this path, but I guess any little bit helps.

  26. Tano says:

    what is supposed to be the benefit of this denouncing, regardless of who performs it?

    To make it as clear as possible to the Afghans that we do not hold them in contempt, that we really are there to help them stand up their own country, and that we are not the enemy of their nation or their culture.
    Jones and the Taliban are hard at work trying to convince Afghans of the opposite.

  27. George Kirkman says:

    mantis says:
    Tuesday, April 5, 2011 at 17:01

    So people that exercise their Constitutional rights are idiots and stupid?

    Some of them certainly are. You disagree?

    Yes.

  28. Boyd says:

    @Tano: Thanks.

  29. Not John says:

    This is what we are fighting for.

    http://saberpoint.blogspot.com/2011/04/pro-terry-jones-forces-begin-to.html

    That Women is great.

  30. Samuel Dijk says:

    Could someone explain to me why Jones is a “scumbag”? Because he burnt his own copy of a book in his own church?

    Because he believes that Islam is a false religion–and we aren’t supposed to believe that anymore–and acts on his belief? (Then Martin Luther would have been a “scumbag” when he publicly burned Pope Leo X’s Bull. I’m sure if they had youtube in the age of Luther, he would have made sure that it got posted.)

    Because he exercised his constitutional rights?

    Personally, I think Rev. Jones, about whom I know nothing, should be applauded. He and his small band of 50 followers, have performed the most brilliant act of political theater in the last 50 years. By burning one copy of the Koran, he has exposed the contradictions and fissures in American political thinking about why and what we should be doing in Afghanistan.

    Here we are in Afghanistan, spending a hideous amount of money in support of a Democracy that does not believe in individual rights–one in which a person can be put to death for converting to another religion. Why? What value does such a democracy have?

    What exactly are we fighting for?

    He has catalyzed conservative thinking on this topic. If you don’t believe me, go look at the opinion poll on the Power Line blog. Over 75% of the respondents think it is time to give up on this country and come home.

    One “outrageous” act can bring more moral clarity to an issue than all the debate club speeches in the world.

    He threw a hand grenade all right–but one that needed to be thrown. It has exposed the folly and sloppy thinking behind the hubris of “nation building.”

  31. anjin-san says:

    > Rev Jones should have no protection under the US Constitution and be tried and executed according to Sharia law.

    What do we have here? Yet another “conservative” living in terror of Sharia law? Now there is something you don’t see every day 🙂

  32. john personna says:

    Wait – is “hate speech” now fully an American right? Dare I ask, an American value?

  33. Fog says:

    This discussion kinda makes me want to go to Terry Jones’ house and burn a Bible on his lawn – just to see what would happen.

  34. George Kirkman says:

    Samuel Dijk says: Tuesday, April 5, 2011 at 23:24

    Could someone explain to me why Jones is a “scumbag”? Because he burnt his own copy of a book in his own church?

    People like to kiss up to Muslims to prove how liberal and tolerant they are. How many times have you seen on here and elsewhere something that goes like this. “Yes, Rev Jones has a right to do what he did, but he is stupid, irresponsible, a scumbag, etc for exercising his Constitutional rights.” It just grates on peoples nerves to admit that Rev Jones had a right to do what he did.

  35. George Kirkman says:

    anjin-san says: Tuesday, April 5, 2011 at 23:43

    > Rev Jones should have no protection under the US Constitution and be tried and executed according to Sharia law.

    What do we have here? Yet another “conservative” living in terror of Sharia law? Now there is something you don’t see every day 🙂

    Actually I was being sarcastic. My wife tells all the time, “No matter how absurd you try and make something, there are always people out that are gullible enough to think that you actually meant it.”

  36. George Kirkman says:

    Fog says: Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at 08:56

    This discussion kinda makes me want to go to Terry Jones’ house and burn a Bible on his lawn – just to see what would happen.

    I think the Rev Jones would rush out of his house with a great 2-handed sword yelling “Jehovah Akbar!” and cut your head off.

  37. anjin-san says:

    George – sorry, you were quite convincing. It’s kind of hard to know about parody and the right. People say things every day in earnest that a satirist would have to work pretty hard to match, much less eclipse…

  38. George Kirkman says:

    anjin-san says: Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at 10:43

    George – sorry, you were quite convincing.

    “Rev Jones should have no protection under the US Constitution and be tried and executed according to Sharia law.”

    I thought the part about being “tried and executed according to Sharia Law” would be a dead give away. Not even the ACLU would go along with that, at least not yet. I’ll try harder next time.

  39. mantis says:

    So people that exercise their Constitutional rights are idiots and stupid?

    Some of them certainly are. You disagree?

    Yes.

    No stupid person has ever exercised their constitutional rights in this country? Interesting assertion.

  40. George Kirkman says:

    mantis says:
    Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at 12:35

    No stupid person has ever exercised their constitutional rights in this country? Interesting assertion.

    I don’t believe anyone is stupid for exercising their constitutional rights ,

  41. john personna says:

    “I don’t believe anyone is stupid for exercising their constitutional rights ,”

    We should have values, George. Respect for the rights of others is one of those, and is embodied in the Constitution. It would be a little bit Rain Man though, to think that’s all there was, and that was all that was required.

    I think the Framers had higher goals than that you would put Jones on a Rights pedestal.

  42. mantis says:

    I don’t believe anyone is stupid for exercising their constitutional rights ,

    Me neither. That’s not what we were discussing.