Editorial: Just Because You Can…


The recent brouhaha over the grossly offensive threat by a Florida pastor to burn copies of the Koran points to one of the essentials of living in a free society that seems to be sorely lacking these days, namely, self-restraint.

Not every idea is a good one, and in an era of instant communication, we are almost assured of being introduced to most of the bad ones. Thus, the wacko pastor, whose name shall be withheld here to deny him the small-child sort of attention he seeks, receives national media coverage for his utter lack of intelligence, his vileness, and his showmanship (and if all that’s bad enough, get this – he freely admits he has never read the Koran!). He even exploited his “decision” not to carry out the burning, elevating himself to a national stage and garnering the kind of facetime suggested in the old adage, “There’s no such thing as bad PR.”

While we must tolerate such hate-filled buffoonery, we don’t have to like it. The actions of the vulgar Westboro Baptist Church in marching just down the street from I.E. Millstone’s memorial service last year were reprehensible. Nazis who intended to march in largely Jewish Skokie, Ill. in the late ‘70s (and ultimately did march in three locations in the Chicago area) comprise the most foul sort of humans. And when the United States Supreme Court, in Cohen vs. California, upheld the right of a courtroom spectator to wear a jacket inscribed with the words “F** k the Draft,” it did not opine on the propriety of the expression, but simply its legality.

We stand in support of an expansive view of the First Amendment and its protections of expression, assembly and religion. But we are really, really tired of those who malevolently flaunt those rights and then stand behind the Constitution as though it shrouds them in respectability.

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We understand that flaunting is sometimes in the eyes of the beholder. For instance, we support the use of humor and parody as a socially constructive release. Monty Python poking fun at Christianity, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks at Jews, these are the stuff that a free society needs though some will certainly take umbrage. Without such outlets, however, the repressed frustrations of the many can boil over and blow.

The Florida situation is vastly different than this. The burning of religious texts, though protected, is repugnant because it represents a fundamentally un-American intolerance and disrespect. In essence, it is the use of bigotry against one religious group to promote another. This is not a protest that serves any constructive purpose. It does not lampoon terrorists, but would have instead been a truly obscene gesture towards an entire religion. It is not done with intent to cause smiles or laughs or to entertain, but with a seething animus. It is one of those “know it when you see it” moments, of something so vile and in contrast to human civility as to leave one only shaking his or her head that it could even occur.

Each religion preaches its merits to preserve or grow its audience. Most people do not personally feel the same about their religion as they do about other religions. However, the same First Amendment that gives us free speech and free press also gives us freedom of religion. Essential premises of our country are equal treatment under the law and separation of church and state. In our country, no religion gets to set the rules about how others treat it or about how other religions are to be treated. Certainly violence and physical coercion such as the responses in Europe to cartoons depicting Mohammed are illegal as well, and no religious motivation justifies such acts. Fight words or images with words or images, not with assault and battery.

Why would the Koran burning be different, one may ask, from a religious order electing to construct a place of community gathering and prayer near Ground Zero? Well, it couldn’t be more different. The New York effort is a construction for the benefit of peaceful worship; the Florida one is a destructive effort to inspire hatred and bigotry toward a world religion. Sure, if the NYC community center and mosque turned out to be funded by terror-focused organizations, by all means take action. Some have said it’s disrespectful of the victims and their families; yet we’ve read accounts from relatives of those who died on 9/11 who support the building of the Islamic structure; and in fact, Muslims (and Jews) died alongside Christians and others; there was no discrimination in who lost their lives.

We have oft complained in these pages of the level of histrionics in our society and our media in recent years. It’s not that there haven’t always been extremists; there have. But there hasn’t always been a general circulation platform for them to hurl their venom. In this age of “click once, send to all,” it doesn’t matter if you’re reasoned, moderate, respectful or psycho; the wires and satellites don’t discriminate.

Government restrictions? No, that’s not the answer. Instead, as adults and parents we need in our own behavior to set an example for both our peers and our youth. If we encourage, indeed celebrate, the kind of whiny self-indulgences we would normally reprimand in a two year old, we have no excuses for what we get in return.