In America, one hopes, one must at least attempt to commit a crime before being punished for it. Not so if you happen to be Pastor Terry Jones, the irretrievably stupid Floridian preacher and Muslim-baiter.
Last week found Jones in Dearborn, Michigan, preparing to protest the country's largest mosque. Before he'd even arrived at the site, a jury of six Michiganders declared his yet-to-be-committed protest an attempt to "breach the peace." Jones and his coextremist, Wayne Sapp, were briefly held in jail on a $1 bond.
One can understand why the citizens of Michigan mightn't want Pastor Jones to protest in their state. Last month, when Jones burned a Qur'an at his Gainesville church, angry Afghan imams (with an assist from our "ally," Hamid Karzai) incited their congregations to riot, resulting in the beheading of several U.N. workers and the deaths of a great many civilians. There were those of us -- me, included -- who placed responsibility for those deaths at Jones' feet, not because Muslim extremists shouldn't be held accountable for their actions but because Jones' own words seemed to indicate that the point of his Qur'an burning was to prove that Muslim extremists were as murderously intolerant as he claimed. (Jones seemed to think we didn't already know this.)
These deaths constitute an excellent argument against publicizing Jones' future incendiary literary criticisms. They probably do not constitute a valid reason for reconsidering our nation's legal and ethical priorities.
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Certainly, Jones' recent career is an interrogation of those priorities. In the crassest possible terms, the problem of Terry Jones is this: If Americans wish to retain their freedom of speech in the internet age, it is a given that, somewhere, somehow, innocents will die because some asshole decides to inflame crazy. By attempting to muzzle Pastor Terry Jones and his troglodytic coreligionists, we have elected to treat the entirety of the Middle East, with all of its religious extremists, as a vast hostage situation and given unspecified extremists in an unspecified country the kind of queasy deference ordinarily reserved for actual hostage-takers.
Of course, Terry Jones cannot be muzzled. No one in Michigan seriously believes that he can be stopped from making his views known to Dearborn's Mohammedans. Jones' brief imprisonment was an extralegal stopgap measure, an attempt to find an agreeable, if unpleasant, middle ground between two absolutist positions. ("Freedom of speech" and "I will kill people if you insult Mohammed.") The chasm between those positions cannot be bridged with red tape forever.
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