Terry Jones knew, or should have known, that burning a Koran here in the United States would cause riots in places like Afghanistan. He did burn a Koran, and riots did happen, and people died. Legally, Terry Jones broke no law. He is an American citizen, and American citizens are allowed to burn the Koran to make whatever damn political, religious, social, or artistic point they want. If you don’t like what he has to say or how he chooses to say it, tough noogies to you.
If the Afghans who rioted had possessed even the remotest bit of adult perspective about the fact that a man burning a book literally on the other side of the globe could not possibly have affected their lives in any way unless they chose to pay attention to him, of course, they’d have gone about their daily lives instead of setting their nation’s progress towards building something resembling an economy and an infrastructure back by at least a month. If they had the benefit of a civic culture that incorporated the concept of free speech, they wouldn’t have rioted at all. After all, when the Afghans burned Bibles, no one here in the United States responded by rioting. If they were going to riot at all, they should have been rioting to demand civil liberties because a culture of civil liberties is one resilient enough to withstand the insult of a copy of its holy book being burned more 10,000 miles away by someone who is already an infidel.
With that said, I would not have done what Jones did and I won’t provide a moral gloss to apologize for it. He demonstrated something we all knew before he ever did anything, which was that ignorant, uneducated, unemployed men under the sway of fundamentalist religion and within a fragile culture will do unreasonably violent things when their belief structures are insulted with sufficient intensity.
Now, at the end of the day, Jones didn’t actually kill anyone. He did something that he knew was likely to cause death, but he wasn’t the killer — the unreasonable response of people to the mere notion that a Christian cleric in the United States might do something to evidence disrespect for something relating to Islam was what killed people. They are the killers, and they bear the ultimate moral responsibility for what they did.
Jones, however, ought to realize that he set in motion a chain of events that lead to deaths which would not have happened but for his intentionally provocative and malignantly narcissistic gesture. And he ought to realize that by inciting those riots, he set back the possibility that Afghanistan will evolve a culture in which dissent and free speech are at least minimally tolerated. And he also gets to live with the knowledge that a bunch of nutjobs in Afghanistan called out a fatwa on him, although like any narcissist would, he no doubt finds the fact that he elicited such intense emotions in other people to be deeply thrilling and psychologically satisfying. He cried out, “Look at me! Look at me!” and a lot of people did.
But the thing is, he will never get to see the actual proof of the point he wanted to make. Jones wanted to show the world that Islam is dangerous and that we ought to fear it. So the extent to which Terry Jones is executed, Theo Van Gogh style, is the extent to which we Americans are vulnerable to those same nutjobs that Jones thumbed his nose at, the ones he tried to prove are dangerous. If he lives, it proves that the fatwa is toothless. If he is killed, well, he’ll then be dead and therefore unable to say “I told you so!” to the rest of us.
He’ll never know success, only failure.