Marsh: My town, tarnished

Few felt the frustration of our collective inaction more than I. After all, Jones’ Dove World Outreach Center is only a few miles from my childhood home; several of my friends live less than a block or two away. Gainesville, the Floridian college town that I would rather not share with the notorious Jones, has long been known as a haven of culture and erudition. No longer. In a world of hyperactive media outlets, no town can escape from such fanaticism without significant damage to its reputation. Peruse Gainesville’s Wikipedia page, for instance, and you’ll find that it now contains a link to “2010 Qur’an-burning controversy.” Claiming Gainesville citizenship has suddenly become a perilous endeavor that even provokes the occasional pointed question.

For this, I have a single extremist pastor to thank.

Jones did more than just tarnish Gainesville’s image — he also became a financial burden and a threat to public safety. As he bumbled his way towards an act far beyond his comprehension, the entire Gainesville community played along with the pariah. His “right to free speech” demanded the constant attention of over 100 officers from local law enforcement agencies and ending up slicing $200,000 out of the city’s already strained budget. Meanwhile, Gainesville residents could only flood the local newspaper with expressions of exasperation and embarrassment. Though some advocated taking the pastor into custody and the fire department attempted to deny him a burn permit, neither effort found any success. Jones took refuge in the First Amendment and no one could touch him. At least, so the story goes.

Yet, there is something wrong with this picture. Tell me: Can a single individual truly possess the legal right to put the health and happiness of a whole community at risk?

If we take the actions of our nation’s authorities as our guide, the answer to that question would be yes. Given the scale of unrest generated by the Reverend’s plan, the response of federal and state authorities was shamefully inadequate. Jones’ plan had global repercussions — as news of his intentions spread around the world, lingering conflicts were revived and nasty ideologies sprouted in every corner. Had the burning actually taken place, millions of American lives would have been placed in great danger and our nation would have found itself mired in a foreign policy nightmare.

But the only thing we heard coming out of Washington was condemnations. President Obama declared the Jones’ intentions “Anti-American.” Eric Holder labeled them “dangerous” and “idiotic.” Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 used the words “disgusting” and “disgraceful.” There was no edge to any of these statements. A counter-threat would have been nice. The use of force would have been even better. I firmly believe that Jones should have been arrested for a hate crime. In fact, he should have been arrested over a year ago when he posted “Islam is of the Devil” signs near the road adjacent to his property. An arrest would have brought the case to court and at the very least, made it clear that we as a nation do not tolerate extremist behavior, even from one of our own. Supreme Court justices have hinted that they are ready to give a new interpretation to the First Amendment. It’s time to seize the opportunity.

Admittedly, Gainesville itself is also at fault. As Jones’ neighbors, we were the first to see what danger lurked next door. Yet, instead of taking action, we tolerated Jones’s exploits — for years. I’m proud to say that on Sept. 11, a diverse group of more than 200 Gainesville citizens marched on Dove World Outreach Center in protest. Courage does exist after all. But where we were we when it all began? And why did we do so little to stop it?


  • SY10

    Do you really have so little respect for the freedom of speech that you would seek to see someone arrested simply because what they say is offensive? The standard you propose – that lives would be placed in great danger on account of the Qu’ran burning – initially seems reasonable. But what you ignore is who would actually be endangering those lives – not the man burning the Qu’ran (assuming he followed proper fire-safety) but those responding to him. In the world you envision, those willing to use violence when their beliefs come under attack would gain protection for those beliefs that people who refuse to use violence do not have. If a group of extremists threatened violence against Muslims if the so-called “World Trade Center Mosque” was built because they found it offensive (as so many Americans seem to), would that mean the government should negate the religious freedom of the mosque’s builders for the purpose of protecting innocent lives? Should the Tea Party, instead of protesting and engaging in the political process, threaten acts of violence whenever the federal budget is increased? And if they did, should that make those seeking new federal spending subject to arrest? Should environmentalists do the same to stop oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico?

    I have no hatred for Islam (I’ve defended it on these comment boards) and I consider it offensive to demonize Muslims and burn their holy book, as Jones originally planned. But that does not mean we should stop people from expressing hatred of Islam, as long as they do so non-violently.
    To protest against speech we find offensive displays our fundamental decency and you are right to commend the Gainesville residents who protested against Jones. But to employ the power of the state against that speech is a recipe for tyranny – a consequence far more intolerable than the speech to which you object. What happens when it is your speech that someone finds offensive?

  • FailBoat

    Would Mr. Marsh like to ban the burning of the American flag as well? Or should we wait until American extremists threaten flag burners with death before we ban it?

  • Anonymous Bosh

    “As he bumbled his way towards an act [threatening to burn a Quran] far beyond his comprehension…”

    Barf. [Government-funded Piss Christ][1], anyone? The ensuing riots, mayhem, and death were indeed astonishing.

    “His “right to free speech” demanded the constant attention of over 100 officers from local law enforcement agencies…” Probably not, but so what? Freedom of speech has, to you, a maximum specified cost? It is not the wacky *pastor’s* fault that his perfectly legal act inspired the need for protection from perfectly ILLEGAL acts! Is it ALSO right that cartoonist Molly Norris should now be req’d to “go ghost” with a new identity because of her perfectly innocent (upon analysis) and perfectly legal “[Everybody Draw Mohammed][2]” spoof? This DESPITE her [frightened explanation and abject apology?][3] (Well worth clicking the link to understand her raw fear which, we now see, was [entirely justified][4] given the death fatwa now on her head.)

    Here is the crux of capitulation, the death knell of Western Civilization, the imminent handing over of the keys and turning out of the lights:
    “Tell me:

    **Can a single individual truly possess the legal right to put the health and happiness of a whole community at risk**?”

    Yes. Yes again. A hundred times **YES**. A mere 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence. The United States has formally declared war against foreign nations five separate times, in each instance upon request by a specific man–the President of the United States.

    And to trot out Franklin’s chestnut (still true):

    **Those Who Sacrifice Liberty For Security Deserve Neither.**

    “Had the burning actually taken place, millions of American lives would have been placed in great danger and our nation would have found itself mired in a foreign policy nightmare.” And JONES is at fault? By corollary, rape victims are at fault (“she shouldn’t have been there/wearing that/saying that”)? We must now walk on eggshells, curtail OUR freedoms because others cannot control their (illegal) behavior?


  • Anonymous Bosh

    Lastly, when you write: “Admittedly, Gainesville itself is also at fault. As Jones’ neighbors, we were the first to see what danger lurked next door… [and did] so little to stop it.”

    Listen: I often amplify my views for effect; however, in this case I nothing I write will attain hyperbole. I am truly saddened and, indeed, frightened. Is this REALLY how you think? *In order to avoid threatened violence against a group you would “do something” to a citizen exercising his legal rights?* (One wonders what would have been your take on 1938 Germany’s “[Jewish problem][5]”.) Your views–unlikely unique–really, REALLY cause me worry for the future of Western Civ.

    That your Yale education does not lead you to understanding the implications of your stance is… is…

    I am at a loss for words. Is the above “astonishing?” “Further evidence of the end of the world?” “Par for the course?” I just. don’t. know.

    **”I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”**
    It used to be that there were ideals worth fighting for, dying for. Not so much, these days, huh? Comfort. Convenience. A fleeting security. Shhhh… don’t upset the gaolers.

    With apologies to Martin Niemöller:

    *They came first for the cartoonists*

    *and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a cartoonist.*

    *Then they came for the Christians,*

    *and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Christian.*

    *Then they came for the Jews,*

    *and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.*

    *Then they came for me*

    *and by that time no one was left to speak up.*

  • FailBoat

    I truly and sincerely apologize to Mr. Mikitish, whose column I scathingly attacked yesterday. This is the worst column ever published at Yale. A travesty, really, borne of the worst instincts found here at Yale.

  • roflairplane

    At its best nonsense, at its worst totalitarian. I have to agree with FailBoat that this is truly the worst column I’ve ever read in the Yale Daily News (no small feat!).

  • Anonymous Bosh

    Self-described “author, writer, critic, humanist, chocoholic” Abigail Esman has a **[nice piece][1]** on this topic in Forbes.

    Also: I post again the **[before][2]** and **[after][3]** satire from the now disappeared Molly Norris (and her longer apology is recorded [here][4]). The the raw and, apparently, well-founded fear is well worth study and reflection, especially given that many (like Rory Marsh) pray for the “courage” to “do something about” the Pastor Joneses and Cartoonist Norrises of these free United States. Talk about mass [Stockholm Syndrome][5]…


  • RMarsh

    Where do I begin?

    Perhaps with a few clarifications. In the comments that precede this post, many excessive generalizations have been made and many opinions have been attributed to me that are certainly not my own. Let me elaborate. I do not believe that we should “seek to see someone arrested simply because what they say is offensive” (SY10), nor do I believe that Molly Norris was in the wrong when she released her Mohammed spoof (Anonymous Bosh). I don’t wish to see a ban against flag burning (FailBoat) and above all, I don’t think that we should “curtail our freedoms because other cannot control their illegal behavior” (once again, Anonymous Bosh).

    In fact, I find it remarkable that you should use the collective “us” when speaking of Pastor Jones.

    Here’s my point: this one particular case is fundamentally different than the others that you have mentioned. Jones was not simply expressing his beliefs, he was trying to send a “message of warning to the radical element of Islam.” He was attempting to intimidate. Intimidation is not a right covered under the First Amendment – the 2003 Supreme Court case of Virginia v. Black makes that very clear. Jones and his congregation clearly saw this action as a strategic move in a larger conflict – one from which he couldn’t “back down.” They had an aggressive and belligerent agenda in which his “International Burn a Koran Day” was only one episode.

    This was not the case in the other incidents that have been cited. Take the Ground Zero Mosque as a prime example. At its core, the project is no more than an attempt from a moderate Islamic community to express their religious beliefs and worship as they choose. It is not aimed at inciting violence or dishonor the victims of 911. The proposed location for their Mosque may be unfortunate, but the group is well within its rights to build there.

    In short, the legality of a given action should depend on the nature of the action itself and not the response that it solicits. In today’s YDN, a Mr. Rajeshwar makes the claim that my view of freedom labels the Selma to Montgomery march, the gay pride rally in front of Westboro Baptist Church, and news stories about Abu Ghraib as illegal acts. It does not. While these actions may have solicited responses similar to that garnered by Terry Jones’ plans, they did not aim to promote discrimination and victimization. In fact, they did precisely the opposite. I applaud those with the courage to stand for what they hold to be true – just as I applauded the protest of Gainesville citizens against the pastor Jones.

  • RMarsh

    Finally, I wrote in my column that I would like to see a new interpretation of the First Amendment. The interpretation I was referring to is the one suggested by Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in a recent interview on Good Morning America. It goes like this: if one can be arrested for shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, why shouldn’t that apply to statements that intentionally incite mass violence and even deaths? I emphasize the idea of intentionality. Jones’ actions have always had the intention to provoke aggression and accordingly, they should be viewed as illegal.

    The situation in Gainesville was an absurd one. At a significant cost to our community, we offered peace and tolerance to an individual who directly opposed to those concepts. We provided a platform for hate speech and intimidation and then endorsed it with our silence. I, for one, simply cannot abide such a disgusting state of events. I sincerely hope these statements have helped correct your perception of my views.

  • Anonymous Bosh

    No: everything I said still holds; I think I have a fair understanding of your views–and where they lead. You would then, I take it, support some sort of “Intention Czar,” empowered to bring down the hammer of justice *as appropriate?*

    Doubtless you have heard of Justice Potter Stewart, famous for having proposed the “I know it when I see it” test about what constitutes obscenity–another form of unprotected speech.

    Many who know the quote, though, don’t know the follow-up: Nine years later Justice Stewart joined the dissent in a different obscenity case (Miller v. California), which focused largely on the *vagueness* of the existing tests for what’s constitutionally protected and what’s not.

    In other words, through experience, Justice Stewart found that, indeed, he did NOT “know it” when he saw it, that his prior view was untenable, and that such a test is no way to run a legal system.

    Maybe someday, with experience, you will understand what Justice Potter came to know.

    As for your Justice Breyer, he [clarified his comments the very next day on CNN’s Larry King Live,][1] stating clearly that Koran (and flag) burning is protected speech. Amusingly, he spoke to such as you pointedly and directly:

    **Breyer**: You know, it’s so often I hear people say — and particularly this is a college student, sir: “Well, that’s just so *terrible* what he’s saying.” *I* say, “Oh, you think that free speech is only for people who don’t say things that are terrible…?”


  • FailBoat

    Mr. Marsh gives up the game when he says that he wouldn’t ban gay pride marches in front of Fred Phelps, nor civil rights marches in the Jim Crow South. As he says, these are types of speech that don’t “promote discrimination and victimization [sic]”. At this point, he is measuring the content of the speech. He is banning speech he opposes and allowing speech he supports. But no interpretation of the Freedom of Speech can sustain discrimination on a content basis. **This is antithetical to freedom.**

    What is the difference between burning the Koran and burning the American flag (or perhaps, a Neo-Nazi march)? Both gravely offensive things. Both could easily be called “hate speech” (although the term has no real meaning). Both offend millions of people. Both are “aggressive”, and could easily be considered intimidating acts (although neither, it can be noted, fall under the legal definition of intimidation). There is one distinction: Americans will not threaten to kill you for burning the American flag. Jews will not threaten to kill you for wearing a swastika. That’s it. That’s the sum of the distinction.

    If Mr. Marsh would make burning the Koran illegal while keeping flag-burning legal, he is *quite literally*, cowering before terrorist threats. That makes him nothing less than a coward.

  • FailBoat

    By the way, Mr. Marsh. Four notes on your hastily researched citation of *Virginia v. Black*, which I have some familiarity with for reasons unrelated to this discussion:

    First, the decision in *Virginia v. Black* makes clear that the ban on cross-burning is inextricably tied to the history of cross-burning in the South. To that end, Koran burning does not have a similar connotations and can remain legal, along with Bible-burning, Harry Potter-burning, and CD-burning (pun!)

    Second, I think it is important to note that in *Virginia v. Black*, the offense generated by the cross is unimportant. Intimidation is legally distinct from outrage. It doesn’t matter if a million men are offended by a burning cross, merely that they are intimidated by it. As it is apparent from the reaction to the Koran burning, no one was particularly intimidated by it; rather, everyone was offended by it.

    Third, the *Virginia* decision held that unless the intent to intimidate can be proved distinctly from the cross-burning, then the cross-burning is not illegal. You have not offered any proof of intimidation in this case, and it makes far more sense (both from common sense and from reading the words of Terry Jones) that he was denouncing Islam as a bad/evil/scary faith rather than attempting to intimidate Muslims. Odious, yes. Illegal, no.

    Fourth, just because the Supreme Court has decided something does not make it morally right or even constitutionally correct. Remember, in 1989, four justices voted to keep flag burning illegal.

  • TD10

    Yes yes freedom of expression is such a quaint notion. I don’t know what’s going on in New Haven, but something is very wrong.

  • Anonymous Bosh

    Yes, yes: late post, but gotta love [**Steyn**][1]!

    “Take this no-name pastor from an obscure church who was threatening to burn the Koran. He didn’t burn any buildings or women and children. He didn’t even burn a book. He hadn’t actually laid a finger on a Koran, and yet the mere *suggestion* that he might do so prompted the President of the United States to denounce him, and the Secretary of State, and the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, various G7 leaders, and golly, even Angelina Jolie. President Obama has never said a word about honor killings of Muslim women. Secretary Clinton has never said a word about female genital mutilation. General Petraeus has never said a word about the rampant buggery of pre-pubescent boys by Pushtun men in Kandahar. But let an obscure man in Florida so much as raise the *possibility* that he might disrespect a book – an inanimate object – and the most powerful figures in the western world feel they have to weigh in.”

    Worth a full read.


  • anotherY10

    @hieronymus’ Bosh

    “Secretary Clinton has never said a word about female genital mutilation” – erm, try googling “clinton genital mutilation” and you get a list of her statements condemning it going back to 1995. Outright lies are the best you can do?

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