Jonah Goldberg

Again, I think burning the Koran is reprehensible. And I could live with a local law that banned Koran-burning (and flag-burning, Bible-burning, Torah-burning, etc.) because I think communities should be able to set standards of decency. But that hardly settles things. It's easy to condemn Koran-burning. What about those Danish cartoons of Mohammed (that Yale University won't even reproduce in a book on the controversy)? What about highbrow novels like "The Satanic Verses"? When Pope Benedict delivered his Regensburg address in 2006, he suggested that Islam had a link to violence. In response, many Muslims rioted. It'd be funny if it weren't so sad.

When Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was asked in an interview about Koran-burning, he brought up former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous comment that the First Amendment "doesn't mean you can shout 'fire' in a crowded theater. ... Why? Because people will be trampled to death. And what is the crowded theater today? What is the being trampled to death?"

There are a number of grave problems with the crowded-theater cliche. First, you can -- even must -- yell "fire" in a crowded theater. It just has to be the truth.

But more to the point, fires are not human beings. Fire has no choice but to burn because that is what fire does. Humans have choices. Yet in this formulation (from which Breyer has somewhat retreated), Muslims are akin to soulless, unthinking flames. Taken seriously, this comparison suggests rational people have every reason to fear Muslims in much the same way they fear fire.

There are complex issues here. But the simple truth is the Islamist extremists who behead and riot do have a choice. They want to murder. What they want is an excuse, and they'll find one no matter what.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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