The following editorial first appeared in the Dallas Morning News:
Florida pastor Terry Jones certainly deserves a lion’s share of criticism for his symbolic burning of the Quran on March 20, having been warned for months that it was almost certain to provoke violence in the Muslim world. It did, and now 24 people are dead in Afghanistan, including six U.N. workers in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
It is important to note, however, that the reaction of Muslim zealots — attacking and killing innocent Westerners — grossly exceeds the provocation. Jones shouldn’t have done it in the first place; his Quran burning accomplished nothing, not even serving his twisted goal of promoting Christianity while denigrating Islam. But his offense in no way justified the savagery that followed.
Jones can argue he was simply exercising his constitutional right of free speech and practice of religion. True, but it’s just as abhorrent as the Westboro Baptist Church protesters who display “Thank God for dead soldiers” signs near military funerals. Its effect is just as dangerous as yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.
But unlike the panic that can ensue in a crowded theater, those who reacted to Jones’ provocation always had control of their reactions. They chose to retaliate with violence and murder.
To his credit, President Barack Obama presented a balanced, measured condemnation Saturday, calling Jones’ actions “an act of extreme intolerance and bigotry” while labeling the Afghan reaction “outrageous, and an affront to human decency and dignity.”
Two decades ago, a Quran burning at an obscure Florida church probably would not have merited mention in the local newspaper. But such is the Internet’s reach that news and images of Jones’ action quickly penetrated into a remote part of Afghanistan, where the literacy rate is only 28 percent. In effect, the Internet enabled a representative of our lunatic fringe to reach out and touch members of the lunatic fringe on the other side of the world. The effect was disastrous.
Worse is Jones’ inability to see beyond this self-promoting stunt to grasp the damage he has caused, jeopardizing American lives and an exceedingly sensitive U.S. military mission. Jones has given America’s enemies yet another recruiting tool to justify their war against us, while giving Muslim allies good reason to distance themselves from the West.
Sadly, this tragic episode has appealed to the lowest common denominator — ignorance — on both sides of the Western-Muslim divide. The Afghan government should dispense swift justice to those who murdered.
As for Jones, the only hope is that he now recognizes the powerful forces he’s playing with and that he’ll pledge to never do such a thing again.