I remember growing up in a conservative movement that, reacting to the rampant permissiveness of the 1960s and ’70s, stressed the virtue of civility. Sure, you have the right to flagrantly offend your neighbors and your community. But should you? Conservatism used to answer “no.”
It was one of the cultural demarcations between the right and the left. If you were on the right, you generally thought it unacceptable to excuse boorish behavior with the utterance, “but it’s my constitutional right!”
Conservatives understood that self-restraint reduced the pressure for government-imposed restraint. We understood that with our civil rights came civic responsibilities. We understood that the United States of America was a land of tremendous religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity and that the peaceful coexistence of all of these people of such varying backgrounds and beliefs required tolerance, and tolerance meant treating others as you would have them treat you. In short, the republic itself relied upon civility.
Most conservatives still get this, I think. But sometimes I wonder how much the self-indulgence of the left has seduced our side. In the last few days, we’ve seen many on the right come out in defense of a proposal that once would have been almost universally considered indefensible, at least on the right — the burning of hundreds of Korans in a deliberate attempt to anger and provoke Muslims around the world.
How can we condemn the constant and never-ending anti-Christian provocations of the radical, secular left and then rise to Terry Jones’ defense on the lame excuse that he has the right to free expression? Or worse, that not going through with his planned incitement amounts to somehow giving in to the terrorists? No, it doesn’t. It amounts to a belated display of common decency.
I understand the desire to poke the radical Islamists in the eye. What could be more enjoyable than that? But really, burning 200 Korans is an act to be judged only on constitutional grounds? Would we say the same if a Florida imam decided to burn 200 Bibles? Would we even mention the First Amendment at all in that case, other than to dismiss it as irrelevant?
Forget for a moment the utilitarian arguments that a mass Koran-burning would incite violence against our troops and prove a setback in the overall effort to win the War on Terror. Those are true, but they need not even be taken up. The event is unacceptable simply because of its horrible incivility. Or have we come to the hypocritical position that it’s unacceptable to deeply offend Christians, but perfectly OK to deeply offend people of other faiths?
There is nothing to be said in favor of building an Islamic cultural center in a building hit by landing gear that fell off one of the 9/11 airliners. It is indefensible. And there is nothing to be said for commemorating 9/11 by burning 200 Korans. It is equally indefensible. Our constitutional rights as Americans are beside the point. Both acts are willfully insensitive, deeply offensive provocations that have no place in a civil society. Period.
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