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?