Politics & Policy

Graham Responds to Steyn, Stuttaford

The South Carolina senator defends his comments about Koran burning.

In response to the criticism by Mark Steyn and Andrew Stuttaford about his weekend comments on free speech and Koran burning, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) called me this afternoon to flesh out his thoughts on the matter.

Here is the transcript:

NRO: Some of my National Review colleagues are being pretty rough on you today. What is your response to some of the outrage on the right about your comments regarding free speech?

GRAHAM: General Petraeus sent a statement out to all news organizations yesterday, urging our government to [condemn] Koran burning. Free speech probably allows that, but I don’t like that. I don’t like burning the flag under the idea of free speech. That bothers me; I have been one of the chief sponsors of legislation against burning the flag. I don’t like the idea that these people picket funerals of slain servicemen. If I had my way, that wouldn’t be free speech. So there are a lot of things under the guise of free speech that I think are harmful and hateful.

When General Petraeus wants us to say something because our troops are at risk, I’m glad to help. I don’t believe that killing someone is an appropriate reaction to burning the Koran, the Bible, or anything else, like I said Sunday; but those who believe that free speech allows you to burn the flag, I disagree. Those who want free speech to allow you to go to a funeral and picket a family, and giving more misery to their lives than they have already suffered, I disagree. And if I could do something about behavior that puts our troops at risk, I would. But in this case, you probably can’t. It’s not about the Koran; it’s about putting our troops at risk. And I think all of us owe the troops the support we’re capable of giving.

Any time an American acts in a way that puts our troops at risk, I feel the need to speak out. I don’t have any hesitation telling the Karzai government that they should not put someone in jail for converting to Christianity. I think that is an absurd law, and we have pushed back against that. I don’t have a problem condemning somebody who burns the Koran or any other religious teaching, particularly when it puts our troops at risk. If we don’t realize that we have thousands of American soldiers in Muslim countries, and that what we do and say here influences their security, then we are just disconnected from the world as it is.

NRO: But don’t you understand the concerns about a U.S. senator determining the limits of free speech?

GRAHAM: Not really. Nobody said anything to me when I said that you can’t burn the flag. People say that is free speech, but I don’t agree. What I was saying is, if I could hold people accountable, I would. But I know that we can’t. I just don’t like the idea of free speech being used as a reason to put our troops at risk. They’ve got enough problems already. I really believe that responsibility ought to be part of free speech. You can’t yell “fire” in a theater. There are a lot of things that you can’t do under the guise of free speech. I just hate it when somebody here, some crazy person, acts in a way that puts our troops in jeopardy. I really feel the need to condemn that. To me, that is not a responsible use of free speech.

NRO: Couldn’t any kind of speech be interpreted as something that could put the troops at risk? Something the president says? Something a U.S. senator says? You could point to any speech and blame it for something.

GRAHAM: Well, that’s what I’m saying. I agree with that. We live in a free-speech society. But when Harry Reid said that the war was lost in Iraq, I didn’t like it. But he has the right to say it. I just want us to be responsible and realize that we are at war. I guess that is my point.

NRO: So you don’t want to do anything legally to limit speech. You’re making a political point.

GRAHAM: Right. I want to push back and say, “be responsible.” But I would vote for a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning, okay.

NRO: What about Koran burning?

GRAHAM: If not a particular act, I would like to be able to push back against things that put our troops in harm’s way, at home and abroad. But there is no way to regulate all of the speech that you are talking about. I am not suggesting that we have a constitutional amendment to ban Koran burning, or Bible burning, or anything else. I am suggesting that I wish that we could make people accountable.

NRO: How do you do that?

GRAHAM: Push back. Let the world know that we don’t condone this, that this is not America. Let people see that this is not who the American people are. To be a Christian, you don’t have to prove you’re a Christian by burning the Koran. We are nation where we tolerate religious differences and that’s what makes us great. We want to push the Muslim world to tolerate Christianity better. It’s pretty hard for us to stand up for freedom of religion in Islamic counties when you can’t stand up for it here.

NRO: If Koran burning puts troops at risk, should the New York Times be banned from publishing classified memos, since that is a form of First Amendment expression that potentially puts our troops at risk?

GRAHAM: Yes. I was very consistent. I wanted to investigate the WikiLeaks case to see if it compromised our national security. See, I believe that we are at war. I am not talking about Koran burning in isolation. I am talking about it in response to what General Petraeus said. If this is important enough to him to issue a statement, then it ought to be important enough for us in government to listen to what he has to say.

This is not some theoretical case of free speech; this is a case that is impacting the security of our forces, according to our general on the ground. WikiLeaks was the release of classified information, and I don’t believe that the private in question has a free-speech defense. Those who release classified information, even for those in the media, they are not above the law. The First Amendment doesn’t allow people to publish state secrets.

NRO: But don’t you fear that if we let Islamic extremists determine the speech debate in the United States, then we’ve lost something?

GRAHAM: No. Here’s what I fear: I fear that politicians don’t have any problem pushing against laws in the Middle East that are outrageous. It’s perfectly acceptable for me to push back against prosecutions by Islamic countries against people of my faith. And it is perfectly appropriate for me to condemn Koran burning when the general who is in charge of our troops believes that such action would help. I’m not letting Islamists determine what free speech in America is, but I am, as a political leader, trying to respond to the needs of our commander. You’ve got to remember, General Petraeus decided that this was important enough to get on the record as being inappropriate. And I want to be on the record with General Petraeus.

NRO: Instead of being an advocate for Petraeus, should you not first and foremost be an advocate for the First Amendment?

GRAHAM: You know what? Let me tell you, the First Amendment means nothing without people like General Petraeus. I don’t believe that the First Amendment allows you to burn the flag or picket the funeral of a slain service member. I am going to continue to speak out and say that’s wrong. The First Amendment does allow you to express yourself and burn a Koran. I’m sure that’s the law, but I don’t think it’s a responsible use of our First Amendment right.

Where does this end? How many more things are going to happen in the world that is going to incite violence against our service members overseas? I am just asking Americans, don’t do that, please. For God’s sake, no matter how you feel about religion, please keep it within the confines of realizing that we have thousands of people serving our nation, fighting for those First Amendment rights. They’ve got enough problems.

Just be responsible, that’s all I’m trying to say. Burning the Bible would not justify murder, burning the Koran doesn’t justify violence. The people who are committing this violence, I condemn them. That’s what I said Sunday. I don’t think I said anything Sunday that was inconsistent with what General Petraeus said.

NRO: Okay. But suppose General Petraeus said it would be better if Americans did not criticize the teachings of Mohammad, that it would be better for American troops if Americans did not speak out on Islam. Would you advocate for that?

GRAHAM: No. One thing about free speech is that you can practice your religion and differ with others. Free speech and the freedom of religion doesn’t only guarantee your right to practice your religion, it also allows you to criticize.

Go back and look at the testimony from the Durbin hearing about protecting Muslim rights. I said then that this is a part of life. There are people who think the Baptists have got it all wrong. Well, I’m a Baptist. The Protestant–Catholic divide still exists in some corners. That’s the thing about living in a free society. You can challenge each other. You can not only practice your religion, but challenge someone else’s religion. But here’s what I am saying: In the course of that debate, if an act of an individual is so unrepresentative of how we are as a nation, and puts our troops in harm’s way, I feel a need to say that is not right. I hope most political leaders would speak out and say Koran burning is an inappropriate way to do business. I’ve condemned burning the Bible. Do you think we should say that is okay?

NRO: The question about your comments is about imposing any kind of legal pushback during a time of war.

GRAHAM: If I could, I would make it a crime to burn the flag, but the only way you could do that is through a constitutional amendment.

NRO: What I don’t understand is, if would you support an amendment to ban flag burning, why do you not support one to ban Koran burning?

GRAHAM: In my view, the flag represents who we are as a nation. It is a symbol of who we are. If you start talking about individual acts of religious intolerance, the amendment doesn’t make any sense. It does make sense, to me, to focus on the symbol of the country, the flag. I’m not proposing that we propose a ban on religious disagreement. I am saying that you can disagree with America; you can disagree with me, but don’t burn the one symbol that holds us together. That’s not an act of speech. They say that is symbolic speech, but I think that is a destructive act. It’s the one thing that unites us.

Yet when it comes to regulating what individual churches may do, or what individual citizens may do under the guise under religion, you are not going to be able to write a constitutional amendment to ban those practices. There is no way to do that. I wish we could hold people accountable for their actions, but under free speech, you can’t.

— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its original posting.


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