Hurt feelings vs. liberty

So, Jason, you say you weren’t offended by a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center? Ah, reply the skeptics, that’s because either (a) you’re a liberal, east-coast, cosmopolitan, post-American (whatever that means) — or (b) you’re a secret Muslim yourself. So of course you’re not offended. You’re on the other team, so it’s no skin off your nose.

But what about the church down in Florida that’s holding a Koran burning? Surely, Jason, you’d oppose that, right? I mean, aren’t we supposed to practice tolerance? And doesn’t that mean showing respect for Muslims? And doesn’t showing respect for Muslims mean we can’t burn a certain holy book?

Well, no.

I’m very sorry to anyone who feels offended, but that’s not the tolerance I’m talking about. The very same set of rules applies to both the mosque in New York and the church in Florida. The same results obtain. Burning a Koran — provided it’s legally your Koran, and it’s legally on your property — should also be permissible. That’s how private property works. If it belongs to you, then you get to make the decisions about it, provided only that it does no material harm to anyone else. Hurt feelings don’t count.

The truth is, and I’ve got to admit this, my feelings really are offended. I know that a church holding a book burning is not censorship properly speaking. A church isn’t a government, thank God. It can’t confiscate other people’s books or smash other people’s printing presses. It can’t throw anyone in prison for their writings, as used to happen all the time in the Soviet Union, and as still happens in many Muslim countries. This book burning is, for all I can tell, no more coercive than any other meagerly fueled bonfire on someone’s private property.

But still, book burnings make me feel awful. I despise anything that even smells of tyranny. Book burning is for Nazis, Fahrenheit 451, and the French Old Regime’s place de grève, where they famously burned people, too.

In other words, book burning is an ugly act for evil losers who could never hope to win the war of ideas. It turns my stomach that some people in our society apparently fall into the same category. As the old saying goes, when Zeus reaches for his thunderbolts, it shows that his reason has deserted him.

In this case, it obviously has. Consider pastor Terry Jones’ own words: “How long are we going to bow down? How long are we going to be controlled by the terrorists, by radical Islam?”

The mere fact that we let this fellow run a Christian church is proof enough that he is quite wrong. This is to say nothing of the fact that we are at war in two different countries right now (err, make that three), with the aim of destroying terrorism worldwide and thwarting radical Islam. If all that counts as “bowing down,” I’m not sure that there’s room in Jones’ mental universe for anything else. Truly, we’re not dealing with either an insightful or a considerate mind.

At least for the moment, I would like nothing better than to see Pastor Jones publicly shamed and humiliated for his little publicity stunt. As the great H. L. Mencken put it, retribution brings pleasant dreams. And I do so like pleasant dreams.

However: Having a society means that we each must individually give up some particular, near-term desires in the name of a greater good. That’s what societies do. In a liberal society, the greater good is freedom for everyone. We all give up our momentary desire to throttle our neighbors. In return, no one throttles us. So we have to allow this stupid, sniveling, hateful little book burning. Our consolation is that we can still call it for what it is, namely stupid, sniveling, and hateful. (Here’s a particularly eloquent example.)

Where there is no material harm, we should live and let live. Which brings us to the comments of General David Petraeus: “Were the actual burning to take place, the safety of our soldiers and civilians would be put in jeopardy and accomplishment of the mission would be made more difficult.” Here, it might seem, is a material harm worth considering.

Petraeus is no doubt correct that our enemies will be enraged, and yet we are not fighting to preserve our enemies’ precious feelings, nor are we fighting for our troops’ security above all things. Were that the case, the obvious answer would be to return them home, where they would indeed be safe. I take it as an article of faith that we are fighting for a liberal society, one in which freedom, with all its attendant dangers, is preserved. I presume our troops knew this when they signed up for the job, and they knew that our enemies already take offense at a near-infinite number of things we do, from women’s education, to drinking alcohol, to practically everything else.

Perhaps fighting for a liberal society is more dangerous than fighting for an illiberal one, but I doubt it. And if the safety of our troops is more important than whatever they are doing abroad to preserve our freedom, then by all means, bring them home. Just don’t pick apart our freedoms.

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