When the Rev Terry Jones burned a Koran in Florida recently, his actions did not make front-page headlines or major television news shows.
But the ensuing outcry over his actions in Afghanistan this week has drawn worldwide attention to America, and the wonderment over why a misguided Christian pastor would ever be allowed to do such a thing.
Most Americans condemn Jones’ actions. That Jones was allowed to destroy a holy book without the threat of a jail sentence is something that most outside — and inside of America — do not understand.
The answer is the US Constitution, specifically the First Amendment. In a number of surveys on the First Amendment, Americans have been unable to recite the five freedoms that are guaranteed to them in this one simple and remarkable paragraph.
Very briefly, the guarantees are freedom of the press; the right to peaceably assemble; the right to petition the government; religious liberty; and freedom of speech. Jones’ actions fit under the last area.
Our founding fathers could not have imagined a pastor as misinformed and obscene as Jones. Nor could they have ever expected a Nazi movement in the US after an American-led war to defeat Nazism.
But all of these people have found protection under the Constitution, and our courts have consistently ruled in their favour. The philosophy is this: If government begins to curb freedom of expression, there will be a constant erosion of freedoms on all fronts.
Our forefathers also guaranteed that citizens would be armed in case their government turned against them. While a noble cause in the 1700s, gun laws can sprout wonderment when one sees a congressman shot down in Phoenix by a madman who was armed better than most police.
But this is America. And while our systems are far from perfect, they have protected the right of the majority and the minority on most occasions.
Several weeks ago, there was a protest outside of my son’s Roman Catholic school. The group, a dozen at most, were carrying signs that showed graphic homosexual acts. The purpose was to protest the paedophile sins of the Church.
The school is taught by lay people, there are only a few Jesuit priests in leadership posts. Not one of them has ever been accused of any sexual malfeasance. Yet, over 1,000 young men were subjected to this protest.
Years ago, I was at a funeral of a dear newspaper friend. After the service, we were greeted by protesters carrying signs and shouting obscenities at us. I shielded the deceased’s widow, who was in her 80s.
“What is this all about?” she asked me. “My husband did nothing to offend these people.”
Our newspaper, however, had written editorials that they opposed.
America’s freedoms were hard won. Keeping it is equally difficult, especially in the unusual times that we live.