Magazine | May 2, 2011, Issue

Trial by Fire

The world reacts to a Koran-burning

The greatest advocate of book-burning in history was probably the skeptical philosopher David Hume. In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, he wrote: “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

Hume was employing his famous and habitual irony, of course: He did not really expect people to set fire to whole libraries as a result of reading his words, nor did he want his own book committed to the flames, as it would have been if anyone had been literal-minded enough to carry out his injunction. Indeed, were anybody to burn books of school metaphysics or divinity after reading Hume we should consider him a humorless dolt. It is therefore to be hoped that the Rev. Terry Jones, of Gainesville, Fla., never gets round to reading Hume.

Since Heine first suggested (in 1821) that where they burn books they will end up burning people, the world has developed and become more technologically sophisticated. Heine thought that the same people, or the same kind of people, would burn both books and people, which turned out to be the case in Nazi Germany. But the Internet has changed all that: The causal connection between the burning of books (or of a single book) and the burning of people has become more tenuous and convoluted, and the conflagration of people can now take place thousands of miles away from the conflagration of books, at the end of a complex chain of causation. Such is progress.

The Reverend Jones was fully aware that his action might result in violence, as indeed it did: at least 20 dead and others injured. Who bears the responsibility for these deaths?

That the Reverend Jones had a legal right to burn the Koran seems indisputable (give or take the objections of the Gainesville fire department’s regulations, which prohibited him from burning it outdoors). But in a free society, obedience to the law does not constitute the whole of morality; an act that is legally permissible may not be permissible in any other sense.

Generally speaking, a man may be said to have willed the harmful consequences of his actions if they were reasonably foreseeable by him. But the fact that he willed the foreseeable consequences does not absolve those who brought them about of their own responsibility.

Did Jones incite or provoke? Legally speaking, he did not. He did not incite, because he did not call on or encourage people to harm anybody else or to destroy property. He did not provoke, because provocation by definition is an act to which any reasonable person might react by doing something illegal and out of character. Moreover, provocation, even where it exists, is not a legal excuse; it is only a partial defense or mitigation. A man who kills when provoked is not innocent of all crime; he is merely guilty of a lesser crime than murder.

#page#But who is a reasonable person? This is said to vary according to culture and to the prevailing mores of society. Moreover, the orthodoxy of one age becomes the heresy of the next, and vice versa. But in this case it hardly matters, because even in Afghanistan there were people who regarded the killings as indefensible, and therefore as not the acts of reasonable but provoked men. Even if President Karzai was not entirely sincere in his denunciation of the killings, which is highly likely, his words of reprehension were sufficient to deprive the perpetrators of any defense of provocation. Moreover, the rioters were a minority, even in their own towns; therefore they chose to react murderously, and you cannot choose to be provoked.

Emerson said that every book that was burned illuminated the world, and Pastor Jones’s incinerated Koran has certainly done that, though what has been revealed by its light is not at all reassuring. His primitive criticism has called forth an even more primitive rebuttal; there are still people in the world who are prepared to defend to the death (mostly other people’s death, of course) their right to suppress opinion.

Unfortunately, Jones’s action will only have reinforced a fetishistic attachment to a text that, for all those who do not believe in its divine provenance, seems irredeemably dull, flawed, and riven by contradiction. Carlyle’s description of it as a confused, wearisome jumble that could be read by a European only from a sense of duty still seems accurate.

But one does not go to the trouble of ceremonially burning a book that one deems unimportant. Jones, who in the past has been accused by his own minuscule church of being a publicity-seeker, accused the Koran of responsibility for every kind of crime, thereby himself making a fetishistic object of it, but an object with an exactly opposite moral valency from that ascribed to it by the Afghani mob. (I wish that he had shot or drowned it, as he had threatened to do, rather than merely burned it: That would have made a YouTube video worth watching.)

Muslims will easily interpret Jones’s primitive action as fear of the Koran, not because of its alleged crime-provoking properties, but because of the supposed truths that it contains that undermine the claims of his own Christianity and indeed of Western civilization as a whole. It is an unfortunate fact that people often judge the truth of a belief that they hold by the practical lengths to which other people are willing to go to oppose it. Geert Wilders’s call to ban the Koran will only have strengthened this impression. Banning and burning books is, after all, to pay a backhanded compliment to their power, influence, and importance.

Whatever else it might have illuminated, the burning Koran lit up an important and for the moment unbridgeable gulf between pre- and post-Enlightenment political philosophy. After the book burning and the subsequent killings, President Karzai (who did much to publicize Jones’s stunt, perhaps in an attempt to boost his Islamic and nationalist legitimacy) had to perform a balancing act, appealing to two constituencies at the same time: first to the United States, without whose support he would soon most likely be hanging from the nearest lamp-post, and second to the population of Afghanistan, whose approval he must nevertheless continue to seek. For U.S. consumption, he condemned the killings; for domestic consumption, he called upon the U.S. to prosecute the Reverend Jones.

#page#Whatever President Karzai’s true beliefs, if he has any, he must be assumed to know, better than any foreigner, his own people’s state of mind, their culture, tastes, and predispositions. He would know that there were few Voltaireans among them who believed that truth is most likely to emerge from the free interplay of opposing opinion, and that there is a right to error and foolishness. On the contrary, in their political and social philosophy it is the duty of authorities to impose truth in the form of orthodoxy and virtue in the form of conformity, and when someone within their jurisdiction utters a heresy or declines from virtue the authorities have failed, and must resort to restorative punishment. On this view, the authorities are responsible for everything that goes on within their jurisdiction, a view that is implicitly totalitarian.

If Karzai’s view of his own population’s culture and state of mind is correct, he is in effect admitting that the kind of liberal democracy in whose name he was brought to power and now rules has no social foundation whatever in Afghanistan, and indeed is in fundamental opposition to the mores of his society. It is at best a thin crust over a geological formation that, in the circumstances, combines the properties of a volcano with those of quicksand.

The problem is not confined to Afghanistan. The Catholic archbishop of Lahore, Pakistan, Lawrence Saldanha, called upon the American government to detain Jones “for some time,” and the Pakistani interior minister called upon Interpol to treat the burning of the Koran as a “violent crime.” He, and the senators of Pakistan who passed a unanimous motion calling for punishment of Jones, clearly are more emotionally exercised over the burning of a book than the killing of people, or (to take another example) the condemnation to death in their own country of a woman for having said uncomplimentary things about Mohammed in the course of a quarrel.

The Rev. Terry Jones is about to test America’s commitment to the First Amendment to the maximum. He wants to hold a trial of Mohammed for crimes against humanity. To soothe the savage breasts, General Petraeus may then have to do more than call the Koran “the Holy Koran,” as he did when denouncing Jones’s essay into fiery biblioclasm.

– Mr. Daniels is the author of Utopias Elsewhere and other books.

Anthony Daniels — Mr. Daniels is a long-time contributor to National Review.

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