Politics & Policy

A Convenient Excuse

The assumption that every offense could cause violence insults Muslims.

Is Michael Bloomberg to blame for the deaths of the 18 Muslim men in Indian-controlled Kashmir who rioted over reports that someone in America burned the Koran?

Let’s think it through.

As I explained at length in an earlier column, I believe that the New York City mayor could have stopped the Park51 (“Ground Zero mosque”) project months ago, long before it became a national story. It would have taken some wheeling and dealing and a few phone calls. Instead, in his grandiose pomposity, he went a different way.

#ad#Even if you don’t buy that Bloomberg could have nipped this noxious weed in the bud, Commentary magazine editor John Podhoretz is surely correct that this wouldn’t be nearly the controversy it is today if only Bloomberg had been capable of getting the “Freedom Tower” built in a timely manner.

Enter storefront pastor Terry Jones, who introduced the idiotic idea of Koran-burning to the American people. He clearly got his inspiration from the debate over the Ground Zero mosque. He chickened out, but not before he inspired others to do something similar. Two pastors in Tennessee held a private Koran-burning, and a New Jersey transit worker tore up and burned a few pages (and was fired for it). These acts, plus the media coverage of Jones’s planned stunt, sparked the deadly riots in Kashmir.

So, should we put Bloomberg in the dock? Recall him from office? Drop him, bound and gagged, into downtown Lahore?

Alas, no. While we should criticize him for his thumbless grasp of church-state issues and his megalomaniacal incompetence, he’s not to blame for the actions of others. And it isn’t fair to hold people legally accountable for the evil or misguided deeds of others.

And the same basically goes for Jones. His plan to burn the Koran was stupid, irresponsible, and repugnant, but it’s not his fault that there are a significant number of Muslim men who are not only ready but eager to riot and kill in response to insults to Islam.

If you deny this, you are basically denying the humanity of Muslims. We take it as a given in this country that not only are all men created equal, but that each individual is responsible for his own actions. Each man and woman is a captain of his or her own self.

To say that Muslims have no choice in the matter, that they must act like animals, is to say that they are animals. If you tease a bear and he kills you, your stupidity is to blame. If you tease a man and he kills you, the murderer is to blame.

Again, I think burning the Koran is reprehensible. And I could live with a local law that banned Koran-burning (and flag-burning, Bible-burning, Torah-burning, etc.) because I think communities should be able to set standards of decency. But that hardly settles things. It’s easy to condemn Koran-burning. What about those Danish cartoons of Mohammed (that Yale University won’t even reproduce in a book on the controversy)? What about highbrow novels like The Satanic Verses?  When Pope Benedict XVI delivered his Regensburg address in 2006, he suggested that Islam had a link to violence. In response, many Muslims rioted. It’d be funny if it weren’t so sad.

When Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer was asked in an interview about Koran-burning, he brought up former Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous comment that the First Amendment “doesn’t mean you can shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. . . . Why? Because people will be trampled to death. And what is the crowded theater today? What is the being trampled to death?”

There are a number of grave problems with the crowded-theater cliché. First, you can — even must — yell “fire” in a crowded theater. It just has to be the truth.

But more to the point, fires are not human beings. Fire has no choice but to burn because that is what fire does. Humans have choices. Yet in this formulation (from which Breyer has somewhat retreated), Muslims are akin to soulless, unthinking flames. Taken seriously, this comparison suggests rational people have every reason to fear Muslims in much the same way they fear fire.

There are complex issues here. But the simple truth is the Islamist extremists who behead and riot do have a choice. They want to murder. What they want is an excuse, and they’ll find one no matter what.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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