Jonah Goldberg: Free speech and burning Korans


“Since American liberals don’t have the guts to say it, allow me: The Rev. Terry Jones hasn’t done anything wrong. Nothing.”

So writes my friend and conservative radio host Michael Graham in the Boston Herald. And, on this, I think Michael’s nuts.

Graham is referring to Jones, the pastor of a tiny fringe church in Florida, who held a Monty Pythonesque “trial” for the Koran and, to the surprise of no one, found the book guilty. While the stunt got blessedly little attention in the United States, foreign media picked it up and some radical clerics overseas used the incident to foment murderous pogroms against Westerners.


Various politicians, led by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), responded by demanding that Jones be held “accountable.” “Free speech is a great idea,” Graham insisted, “but we’re in a war.” He went on to claim: “During World War II, you had limits on what you could do if it inspired the enemy.”


Sure, wartime censorship is an American pastime. During World War I, under President Woodrow Wilson, we not only shuttered newspapers, we unleashed goon squads on dissidents and imprisoned critics of the war. During World War II, FDR was somewhat less heavy-handed. And the people being censored weren’t those demonizing the “Kaiser’s Huns” or the Nazis or the Japanese. It’s never been a crime to say bad things about the enemy.

Still, if the senator’s arguments are a hot mess, he has a point. We’re in a different kind of war fought in an age in which news travels the world, uncensored and often distorted, with the speed of a mouse click. And in that context, there’s simply no way to spin Jones’ idiotic stunt as anything other than morally ugly and tactically unhelpful.

If, as we are so often told, the Muslim world is enduring a civil war between the crazies and the moderates, what good comes from Koran-burning? It offends “good” and “bad” Muslims alike. Moderate Muslims who seek to yank their societies out of the Dark Ages surely winced at Jones’ stunt, and jihadists undoubtedly celebrated their propaganda windfall.

The fame-hungry pastor prattles about how torching the Koran is an act of resistance to the “Islamification” of America. Come on. Yes, the left has an infuriating double standard by which devout Muslims are delicate flowers who must be defended from American “Islamophobia” and wildly overhyped “anti-Muslim backlash,” while far less illiberal and bigoted (by liberal standards) devout American Christians are to be feared, mocked and opposed. But that’s a product of the internal inanities of multiculturalism and political correctness, not the creeping Islamification of America.

Michael Graham is correct when he says that Jones isn’t culpable for murder — the guilt falls squarely on those with blood on their hands.


But he and others also say there’s “nothing wrong” with burning the Koran. This represents an astonishing evolution in the right’s attitude toward free speech that has been unfolding for the last decade or so. Traditionally, the conservative argument about free expression went like this: “Yes, you have the right to say (or do) X, but that doesn’t mean you should say it and it doesn’t mean I can’t criticize it.”

Burning the Bible, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” or, yes, the Koran is a shameful and brutish act. And failure to criticize it can sometimes be legitimately, or at least predictably, interpreted as an endorsement.

That said, conservatives have been admirably consistent in their new free-speech absolutism. In 2007, Dinesh D’Souza claimed in “The Enemy at Home” that liberals were to blame for 9/11 because their cultural licentiousness aroused Muslim hatreds. Conservatives rejected the thesis almost unanimously on the grounds that blaming our freedoms for Muslim terror is absurd and dangerous.

The analysis is still correct. But that doesn’t mean there’s “nothing wrong” with indefensible speech — on the left or the right.