Burning the Koran

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The president's comments on the Florida pastor's plan to burn copies of the Koran on September 11th were well judged.

I just want him to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan... You could have serious violence.... This could increase the recruitment of individuals who would be willing to blow themselves up in American cities or European cities.

Yes, a stunt is exactly what it is--a disgusting and irresponsible stunt. What a shame that the issue has come to such prominence that the president needed to respond to the question. I'm sure the overwhelming majority of Americans deplore what the pastor intends to do: this is not a question of his expressing some larger strand of opinion. The best way to deal with an obscure nutcase pastor, with no following but for a handful of fellow nutcases, was to ignore him. Instead, we in the media granted him his dearest wish: national celebrity. (It's a story, you see. And if he goes ahead, and people die as a result of the anger that his actions provoke, that will be another story. We just do our job.)

This is not even a controversy in the usual sense. The country is not divided on it in the way it is divided on the mosque near Ground Zero, for instance. But, since you have brought that up, notice the logical parallels.

The authorities might be able to get the Koran-burning preacher for burning some object, any object, in a public place without the proper permissions. (This is America, after all.) But burning or otherwise desecrating the Koran, once you have the necessary permit to set something alight, is constitutionally protected, just like burning the Bible or anything else held sacred would be. Recall that during the debate over the New York mosque, many commentators expressed contempt for the distinction that Obama made, in qualifying his first remarks, between what is constitutionally protected and what is proper or wise. A cowardly evasion, people said, a "clever little dodge". The constitution permits it, and that is all you need to know. In fact, Obama should have argued vigorously for the mosque, to celebrate the freedom in question. After all, what are those protections worth if they cannot be  enjoyed?

Yes, well. Burning the Koran is protected too. How many passionate defenders of the constitution are calling for Obama to support the nutcase pastor's plans as an affirmation of the liberty the constitution enshrines? In this case, apparently, the president can make a distinction between what is legally protected and what is proper or wise without being a squirming intellectual coward.

Of course it is right to make that distinction. It is right to recognize that what the pastor is legally entitled to  do might nonetheless be an outrageous indefensible act. To be clear, I'm not saying building the mosque is any such thing: I'm for it, for reasons I explained before. I am merely underlining the validity of the distinction that Obama made (however clumsily). If it is right to think about the distinction between what is legal and what is good in the Koran-burning case, it is right to think about it in other instances too.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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