Does the General Understand Freedom?
By Tibor Machan - September 13, 2010

Here is the relevant exchange:

"[ABC News'] Martha Raddatz: Is this [the public and widely publicized possible burning of the Koran] something that could have a long-lasting effect on soldiers here?

General Petraeus: We fear it could. This could provide indelible images, images that in an Internet age will be non-biodegradable. They will always be in cyberspace and available for extremists to use to incite and inflame public opinion against our troopers and civilians.

"My job as a commander is to be concerned about the safety and security of our troopers. I think it's important to provide an assessment of an incident that could jeopardize that safety, I think that's very important. I think I have a moral obligation in fact to speak out on an issue like that…."

So this reminds me of how, in contrast to the general's words, many sensible people reacted to the Danish cartoon episode: They thought it was perhaps unwise, unnecessarily provocative to publish them but once published, the issue became whether the newspapers had the right to do so. They did and this right needs to be defended, even while its particular exercise could be judged ill advised, even outright offensive.

Why not the same attitude about the prospect of burning the Koran? The fact that certain people may respond to it by violently lashing out against innocent individuals is lamentable. When one deals with people with a tribal mentality who lump everyone in a country or those of a certain religion or nationality or ethnic background together, never considering that these are different individuals whose deeds are their own, not those of the others in the group, one must realize that such reactions are possible even if totally irrational. Yet not by any means excusable. Muslims who join in are guilty of violence against innocent people, even if some other people who look like those innocent people have insulted them by burning the Koran.

Indeed, while it is an affront to burn what some billions of people regard as a holy book (to those people), it is not an attack on them but on their beliefs. Well, get used to it.

In a pluralistic world millions of people constantly denounce millions of other people, including by way of insulting the books they deem important. Millions of people have denounced the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence, various examples of important literature, and so forth. Books by Karl Marx, by Harriet Beecher Stowe (who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin), Ayn Rand and by thousands of others have gotten condemned as well as praised. But, as that wise saying has it, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." Indeed, denouncing people is something acrimonious but peaceful, as is offending them, and in a civilized world one is free to do what is peaceful however offensive it may be.

This, unfortunately, has been overlooked, even implicitly denied, in many regions of the world, including in the West where politically incorrect language is often deemed to be legally actionable. When the thought someone has while committing a crime, a so called hate crime, is punishable, then it is difficult to reject the thinking about offensive albeit peaceful language and deeds in evidence among many, many Muslims. It is wrong, but so is the thinking that supports punishing more severely a crime deemed to be motivated by hate than the crime without that motivation or motivated by something else. Such is the result of faulty thinking – one cannot cherry pick what inconsistencies one will accept and which are those one will reject. They must all go!

General Petraeus sadly got it wrong when he wants to shut down the Koran burning on the grounds that some will react to it irrationally. Sure, the burning should not happen because it is a needlessly provocative deed but no one should be forcibly stopped from uttering even the most provocative, blasphemous words or carrying out even the most insulting but peaceful deeds. One has a right to be wrong in a free society and public officials may have to cope with the results, including the perpetration of irrational reactions from people who don't get it, who don't understand what freedom entails.

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