Lessons From the Barbecue that Wasn't

Matches. Check. Lighter fluid. Purchased. Qurans. Ready to burn. This is how Reverend Terry Jones, leader of the incongruously named "Dove World Outreach Program," based in Florida, intended to commemorate the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Rather than ask his congregation to light candles in memory of the fallen, Reverend Jones wanted his followers to light and burn the Quran -- the most sacred scripture of the Muslim world. Although the impolite host wound up abruptly canceling the bonfire, there are several lessons one could garner from the barbecue that wasn't.

First, we observed that ignorance nourishes the roots of bigotry and intolerance. An event of this nature can only be organized by a bigot eager to spread the flames of his hatred using the air from his venomous lungs. This is not the first time Reverend Jones gratuitously shares his anti-Muslim views. In the summer of 2009, Reverend Jones posted a notably ungracious sign outside his church that read, "Islam is of the devil." In 2008, Reverend Jones and his pious flock burned a Quran on a public street. One can reasonably infer that Reverend Jones has qualms, to put it mildly, with the Muslim religion. His views are shaped by the erroneous belief that the religion of Islam is to blame for the events of September 11. How does one rationally conclude that the religion of 1.57 billion people should be condemned, in its entirety, because of the actions of 19 savages who compose 0.000000012% of the Muslim population? As Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed: "Fear always springs from ignorance." The breathtaking absence of logic in this line of reasoning can only lead one to believe that he is a man filled with irrational fear and hatred.

Second, we learned that one deranged reverend with a deluded flock and an inordinate amount of time can endanger the safety of many Americans. As President Obama astutely noted when he condemned the scheduled Quran burning, the event would be "a recruitment bonanza for Al Qaeda." News of the Reverend's plans immediately spurred backlash in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Indonesia. General Petraeus, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, issued a warning that Quran-burning events could endanger our troops. Defense Secretary Gates personally telephoned the Reverend to persuade him to reconsider his imprudent plans. Once again, we were reminded that one man has the potential to imperil many lives.

Third, we witnessed that the First Amendment is alive and well. One of the few silver linings to this otherwise dark story is that it has showcased the wondrous beauty of the First Amendment -- that our revered Constitution accords Reverend Jones with the freedom to express this type of odious conduct. As the Supreme Court noted in its landmark case, Texas vs. Johnson: "[i]f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." In Johnson, the Supreme Court invalidated a statute that prohibited flag burning, but it also endowed Americans, like Reverend Jones, with the right to engage in incendiary conduct like burning the Quran. Indeed, the echo of Justice Brennan's ruling still reverberates today.

Fourth, we were reminded that it is imperative to not lose focus of our true enemy. As George W. Bush proclaimed on September 21, 2001, "The enemy of America is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them." We cannot allow our judgment to ever be clouded by those, like Reverend Jones, who attempt to exploit our fears, anger, and pain from September 11. When the temptation arises, we should recall that there were many Arab-Americans who perished at the World Trade Center. Arab-Americans mourned along our side, shed tears, and donated their blood to save American lives. Let us never forget that they deserve the same freedom to worship afforded to Americans of all faiths -- and that those who truly wish us ill deserve the wrath of American justice.

Finally, we deduced that Reverend Jones' Quran-burning cookout was likely scrapped because of widespread condemnation by people of good conscience. The court of public opinion remains the most powerful force there is against the vigor of bigotry. If we remember this basic tenet and lift our voices when individuals like Reverend Jones spew their hatred, then bigots will always think twice before playing with matches.