9.19.2010

Let Him Burn


I'm late to this party, but it strikes me as odd that there was a whole chorus of "I disagree, but what makes America great is their right to do it" associated with the building of the mosque near Ground Zero, but very little if any of the same sentiment regarding the pastor who wanted to burn a Koran in protest on the anniversary of 9/11. Justice Breyer, whose job it is to uphold a Constitution that guarantees freedom of expression in terms of religion, speech, and press, says Terry Jones is within his rights.

I admit I don't know all or even most of the facts, but it strikes me that a place in which you can't build a place of worship in a location that has been approved by the appropriate local authorities, and a place in which you can't perform an unpopular act for purposes of expressing what you believe, is not the America I want to believe in. And, it represents a level of government intervention and paternalism that I am not at all comfortable with. *

I realize there is more to these issues than what is immediately at hand - people making individual decisions do need to be mindful of how they fit into the broader narrative. But why isn't there more thoughtful strategery along these lines:

1) Abhorrent as these acts might seem to some, they are protected by our Constitution and our respect for local laws, so overturning them is simply off the table, end of discussion.

2) We turn our abhorrence into a "teaching moment," by saying that we lead the world in our defense of people's right to expression, even and especially expression that we do not like. (Goodness knows that the countries that have the most problems, economic and moral, are those that squelch expression that is deemed by central government as heretical or forbidden.)

3) We use these particular instances of America's intersection with Islam to further engage with both Muslims (open dialogue is needed here to admit that much of what is thought on both sides is based on ignorance, misinterpretation, and the co-opting of popular opinion by extremist opinion) and terrorists (sending a clear message that their form of rule, by fiat and fear and violence and humiliation, will not ultimately prevail and does not change our defense of our understanding of governance and freedom).

Does anyone care to opine as to why these two recent news items have garnered relatively different reactions? Is there anything else I should know about either of these cases that would cause me to change my mind? Is my simplistic interpretation of these incidents as representative of what "freedom of religion" and "freedom of speech" woefully naive and incomplete? I am open to being corrected.

* PS President Obama, I am very disappointed in your treatment of these two incidents. Perhaps my hopes were too high; I expected you to divine that this was a "moment" for lofty rhetoric in defense of American values. I imagined a special speech in prime time, in which you artfully threaded the needle between high emotion on both sides, and passionately spoke of what we believe in as a country, and what we are willing to fight for and even die for. I could have seen this delicate situation turned decisively into a high water mark for your presidency and its aims to craft a new narrative concerning America's power and influence in an increasingly muddy and complex world. Instead, all I saw from you was waffling and flip-flopping, desperately trying to say enough to appease both sides so as to not further damage your own reputation and your party's popularity. Does November cast that much of a shadow on your thoughts, that you missed the chance to do what you do so well, which is to turn crisis into an opportunity for a killer speech? Please turn this around soon or I will no longer hold out hope that you are a different kind of politician with a different form of motivation.

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