Plans by a Florida fruitcake named Terry Jones to burn the holy book of Islam, the Koran, and the media coverage of the non-event, triggered widespread and sometimes violent demonstrations in Afghanistan. At least one person was killed, shot to death by perhaps Afghan security forces. Jones had earlier canceled his book-burning event, but only after a statement by the President of the United States and a direct plea by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who should not have had to waste his time pleading with a little loony-tune who calls himself a Christian preacher. The cancellation - or maybe it was just a postponement - failed to halt the demonstrations in Afghanistan, where Jones's incendiary plans had placed U.S. and other coalition forces at grave risk.
What Jones has been threatening to do - burn a copy of the Koran - was willfully stupid but would not be illegal in the U.S., where the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects such acts as free speech. Remember when Vietnam War protesters burned American flags? That was protected speech as well. So was the Dutch cartoon that depicted the Prophet Muhammed as a bombhead, although its publication, along with eleven other similar depictions of Muhammed, ignited rioting worldwide that led to an estimated 100 deaths. German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week was somehow able to condemn one form of free speech -Koran-burning - while applauding the Dutch cartoonist.
All this has raised questions about the First Amendment and about the responsibility of the mass media, as well as about the blind intolerance of some Muslims.
Polls in the past have found that many Americans would repeal the First Amendment if given the chance, which shows that they do not understand it. In addition to making the press the only constitutionally protected form of free enterprise (thus creating the so-called Fourth Estate), the First Amendment also protects our right to assemble peaceably, our right to petition the government, and our freedom to practice whatever religion we choose. In addition to allowing Terry Jones to burn a book, the First Amendment protects the rantings of the Limbaughs and Becks and the biases of Faux News.
Let's be clear: you cannot have a democracy without free speech and a free press. If there were no First Amendment, only the speech of the political party in power would be protected. But let's be equally clear about the responsibility of citizens vis-à-vis the First Amendment: the right of free speech is a very great power, and if used irresponsibly, as Jones proposed to do, it can undermine democracy. But what about the mass media, who made little tiny Terry Jones and his little tiny band of likeminded (meaning "mindless") followers into front page news around the globe? True, they have the freedom to print, broadcast, Tweet, email, blog whatever they choose, but where's the sense of proportion? Terry Jones doesn't represent America - or at least he didn't until his stupidity was magnified by media coverage. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in their excellent little book The Elements of Journalism (Crown Publishers) address just this type of issue in a chapter titled, "Make the News Comprehensive and Proportional." It's proportionality that got way out of whack in the Terry Jones story. Kovach and Rosenstiel compare sensationalism in the news to the early mapmakers who exaggerated the importance of their own countries:
Journalists who devote far more time and space to a sensational trial or celebrity scandal than they know it deserves - because they think it will sell - are like the cartographers who drew England or Spain the size of Greenland because it was popular. It may make short-term economic sense but it misleads the traveler and eventually destroys the credibility of the mapmaker.
Terry Jones should have had more sense. The news media should have treated him as the mosquito he is. The Muslims who riot in response to free speech should say hello to the 21st century and recognize the rights and freedoms of democratic countries. And we should all defend our own democracy by exercising our First Amendment rights - and responsibilities.