Bill Maher on the Terry Jones Koran-Burning Incident April 22, 2011

Bill Maher on the Terry Jones Koran-Burning Incident

When Pastor Terry Jones burned a Koran and the ensuing violence was blamed on him, I wrote this at the Washington Post On Faith blog:

As despicable as he may be, Jones didn’t do anything wrong — he certainly didn’t do anything illegal. He burned a book, but he has a right to do that. He may hate the Koran, Islam, and Muslims as a whole, but I have yet to hear him advocating violence against that community. He didn’t cause the recent violence in Afghanistan that transpired after his burning — instead, the blame rests on three mullahs and President Hamid Karzai for fueling that fight by bringing unnecessary attention to Jones’ event.

I bring that up because comedian Bill Maher was interviewed in the latest issue of Rolling Stone (the full piece is now available online) and he tackled the same issue.

His analogy may be the best take I’ve heard on the topic so far:

Yes, it was a stupid thing to burn the Koran, but guess what? The lion’s share of the guilt should be laid on people who then kill over it. It’s like a violent, drunken father. When his kid sets him off and he beats the shit out of the kid, do you blame the kid for setting him off? No, you blame the father for being a violent drunk.

It’s amazing how badly we want to punish the “kid” for something that ought to be a non-issue.


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  • Yep. Yep. My point exactly. I’m glad I’m not alone on this! 🙂

  • Gordon

    You are definitely not alone!

  • Miko

    But aren’t you doing the same blame transfer: “instead, the blame rests on three mullahs and President Hamid Karzai”?

    Surely the blame really rests on those committing the acts of violence? How are the incitations of these four people any worse than the incitation by Jones?

    Also, while I don’t think it really applies in this case, a detailed analysis of this issue should nonetheless include some mention of the concepts of “fighting words.” There comes a point where egging someone on absolves them of at least some responsibility for slugging you. The key reason that that doesn’t apply here is that third parties were involved.

  • Lobar

    Terry Jones is not the kid in the analogy, though. More apt would be a comparison to a man who taunts an abusive drunk, knowing he is likely to take it out on his kid at home. Blame still lies with the drunk, but Terry still either should have known better, or did know better but didn’t care.

  • S-Y

    But instead of the drunken father beating up his son, he beats up his son’s friend. The violent reactions from the Quran burning aren’t even targeted anywhere near Terry Jones; those getting killed have nothing to do with him.

  • e-man

    To understand herd mentality – and genuine social constructs lends just a touch (not much but a little more understanding on blame)– to yell fire in a crowded theater.. or terrorist .. to insight by inflaming passions does carry some weight of responsibility.
    Those who act who tar and feather act like vigilantes or abuse their kids – of course they are accountable for those actions..
    but this does not dismiss the act of knowing ‘core values’ what has meaning to others, freedom, religion, to attack the character of your mother, the N word etc and those things even symbolically can be used to great effect like instigating a tsunami.. he is not the tsunami nor the water damage caused by it.. but he found a fault line like a plug in a dam and pulled on it.

  • StaggerLee

    I am with Lobar regarding the analogy, the “abused kid” in this case are the 10 UN workers not Terry Jones. Jones is the alcohol. And I agree it isn’t alcohol’s (Terry Jones)fault that the alcoholic (rioting muslims) attacked the child (UN workers), however since Jones is an actual person and he was merely promoting his delusional belief over another delusional belief in some kind of my god is better than your god pissing contest, then I hope he really fricking feels like a douche for what happened and that he carries that guilt with him.

  • Umm Yasmin

    I’d say the closer analogy would be that of a teenager who has spent the last decade being abused and morally degraded by his stepfather (and other assorted strangers), and then the bratty child of the stepfather slaps the teenager who then loses it and takes it out on some innocent bystanders.

    bratty child = Terry Jones
    abusive stepfather = the US coalition

    It doesn’t make it morally right that the teenager loses it, but it certainly requires mature understanding to do anything about it.

  • Annie

    To me, I think a better analogy is that Terry Jones poked a hornet’s nest… and other people were stung (or in this case, even worse, killed). But that being said, I am hesitant to place blame on Jones for the killings. At some point, people must be responsible for their own actions. To blame him, one would have to agree that the killers were defending their faith. That is a slippery slope, and one that would offer excuses to those who bomb abortion clinics, and all the other heinous things people do in the name of their god(s).

  • It doesn’t matter how much Jones “egged them on.” Physical violence should only ever be enacted against another person in self defense. People can argue all they want about how “you shouldn’t provoke an asshole.” It’s still the asshole who takes the first swing. They get 100% of the blame.

  • Gibbon

    Terry Jones may not have directly fuelled the fire that killed so many people, but he sure as hell did start it. We all know the old saying, “don’t play with matches,” in this case Jones did; he played with the matches knowing full well what could, or would be most likely to happen. He should have known that others would throw accelerant on the fire after he started it, thus causing it to spread out of control.

    What irks me in this debate over Jones’ actions is the fact that so many people have argued that Jones should not be punished for the killings that other people did on the grounds that he didn’t kill any of those people himself. But in the justice system it is perfectly legitimate to prosecute someone for being an accessory to a murder or any other crime, even if that person didn’t commit the crime themselves. It seems to me that for the sake of consistency you would have to either oppose prosecuting anyone for a crime in which they were an accessory, or abetted, or were simply only indirectly involved, or you would have to favour some sort of punishment for Jones, either through the justice system or otherwise.

    I don’t think Jones should be punished under the law, since he didn’t actually break it, but he did commit a moral crime against his fellow man, and that surely deserves some form of punishment. I’m actually thinking that some atheists and secularists are condemning the notion of punishing Jones for his book burning because they actually agree with his anti-Muslim sentiment.

  • PhiloKGB

    Jones started nothing. The principle ‘mutilate Quran –> kill someone’ was in place long before Rev. Goofystache began his crusade. Those of us who lament the erosion of speech rights in otherwise developed nations recognize that religious whining is largely or entirely responsible.

    Jones’s act is either protected speech or it is not. If it is, attributing any responsibility to Jones whatsoever is implicitly enabling the Islamic butthurt. If we do not hold them completely accountable for their ridiculous actions, if we ask Quran-burners and Muhammad-drawers to cease and desist, we’re giving every authoritarian a road map to preventing criticism.

  • “I don’t think Jones should be punished under the law, since he didn’t actually break it, but he did commit a moral crime against his fellow man”

    What “moral crime”?

    Lighting your personal property on fire on your private property (or someone’s property from whom you have permission) in an expression of your personal beliefs should remain legal and morality simply does not come into play.

    Hearing about said expression and then initiating violence against completely innocent third parties is ludicrous, immoral and (should be) illegal everywhere.

  • ….and @philoKGB:

    “…attributing any responsibility to Jones whatsoever is implicitly enabling the Islamic butthurt.”

    LMAO!

  • AxeGrrl

    Gibbon wrote:

    We all know the old saying, “don’t play with matches,” in this case Jones did; he played with the matches knowing full well what could, or would be most likely to happen.

    Except that fire is a mindless physical phenomenon ~ the concepts of accountability and/or responsibility cannot be applied to it.

    whereas, the human beings who decided to kill are responsible for their actions and should be held accountable for them.

    I understand why you’d want to use that analogy, but as you can see, it’s not the greatest.

  • Akbar

    It’s hard to come up with some scenario in which, Jones, when he burned the Koran, was not hoping that, as a result, some innocent person would end up dead.

  • e-man

    It sounds like people are wanting to place blame on the man for the action of the others or absolve him of blame and it ends there –
    It seems to me they are accountable for their actions and he can still be accountable for his.
    Freedom of speech does not extent to inciting riot – intention is relevant. He was not doing a private personal act of speech. He was intentionally aggravating and inciting in a public manner – thus the consequences of the ‘inciting’ are related to his choices of expression, intention and knowledge of effect.

  • PhiloKGB

    It seems to me they are accountable for their actions and he can still be accountable for his.
    Freedom of speech does not extent to inciting riot – intention is relevant.

    So if Jones were able to make a convincing case that his actions were not intended to incite violence and yet people still got killed because of it, you’d give him a pass? Keep in mind that Jones hasn’t given any indication whatsoever that he was trying to incite violence — that is a motivation imputed entirely by his critics.

    He was intentionally aggravating and inciting in a public manner – thus the consequences of the ‘inciting’ are related to his choices of expression, intention and knowledge of effect.

    So you wouldn’t give him a pass because he should have known that people would be killed? That’s it then; the moment anyone anywhere says that action X would lead to violence, action X is no longer protected speech. I can’t see any potential problems with that principle.

    It’s hard to come up with some scenario in which, Jones, when he burned the Koran, was not hoping that, as a result, some innocent person would end up dead.

    “I sure hope no one ends up dead, but I think this book is evil and needs to be burned.”

  • Kelly

    I’m having a hard time with this one on moral terms. Legally there is no question in my mind that he has no responsibility because I very strongly support free expression. I want to say the same thing morally, but then at the same time I feel that the pope has some moral responsibility for the spread of Aids in Africa due to his position on condom use and I hold people like Jenny McCarthy partially morally responsible when babies get sick or die in a measles outbreak started by an unvaccinated kid, so I’m not sure how this is any different beyond the fact that I feel the western world is being held hostage by certain extremist Muslims through threats of violence so I support protests against that even if Terry Jones is a jackass. I guess basically then I am a hypocrite when it comes to assigning moral responsibility when free speech results in bad things.

  • Akbar

    I sure hope no one ends up dead, but I think this book is evil and needs to be burned

    “Luckily, I can burn this book so that no one can ever read it.”

  • Lobar

    Jones’s actions set off an entirely unsurprising and predictable (not justified, but predictable) chain of events that ended in the deaths of ten innocent men. They would still be alive had he not acted. I don’t know how it can be said morality doesn’t enter play at all here.

    I also don’t see how it follows that any blame assigned to Jones for the consequences of his actions must be lifted from the shoulders of the killers of those men. When two men beat a third to death, we don’t find them each guilty of half a murder. Likewise, I see no reason why we cannot say the killers’ guilt is not mitigated by Jones’s actions, but Jones still bears responsibility as an instigator.

  • PhiloKGB

    Jones’s actions set off an entirely unsurprising and predictable (not justified, but predictable) chain of events that ended in the deaths of ten innocent men. They would still be alive had he not acted. I don’t know how it can be said morality doesn’t enter play at all here.

    Jones is guilty of burning a Quran in a country where burning one’s own property is legal… which the media covered voluntarily… which was seen by Afghani Imams and politicians… who deliberately inflamed the populace… some of whom killed 10 innocent men according to some wacko principle drilled into their brains from infancy. I just can’t muster much moral outrage for Jones in light of the whole picture.

    Likewise, I see no reason why we cannot say the killers’ guilt is not mitigated by Jones’s actions, but Jones still bears responsibility as an instigator.

    What kind of responsibility? The never-do-anything-to-upset-a-religious-authoritarian kind?

  • PhiloKGB

    “Luckily, I can burn this book so that no one can ever read it.”

    I never said his reasoning was rational, but neither was it necessarily malicious.

  • Dark Jaguar

    When you argue that any part of the chain of events that leads to murder is just as responsible as the last link, it can easily get out of hand.

    Are the reporters guilty by association? After all, by the logic used here, if they hadn’t reported on the burning, these murders would never have happened. The reporters had a reasonable expectation to know that this could insight violence just as much as that pastor did, and yet reported it anyway.

    When you decide to start blaming others beyond the very last link in the chain, you have to be careful, or there’s no end in the blame.

    Is Terry Jones really an accessory? He didn’t order anyone to kill, nor did he provide them with the tools or even want them to do it. The most he had was a reasonable knowledge that they might take this course of action.

    HOWEVER, here’s why I can’t buy that as a reason to hold him responsible. They ALSO could have simply NOT killed anyone over it. That was always an option, and it’s equally reasonable to expect that, as they don’t respond to EVERY insult against the Muslim faith with acts of violence, only the ones that they pick and choose. Muslims, however they might act, are not wild beasts. In this thread, they’ve been compared to a hornet’s nest. I don’t like analogies like that. Whatever their beliefs or horrific actions, these are human beings and should be held accountable as such.

    I can’t support the idea that someone calling out some villain, someone telling them off even as they threaten to kill someone, must be responsible for it. The “chain” from that event only exists, after all, if the person they are “inciting” acts as a link themselves and does harm, and that’s not something we can have knowledge of. These people are people, not dominoes, and should be treated as the former, not the latter, and all the responsibility for their own actions that implies.

    Let’s put it this way. If a drug cartel is taking over a city and demands police back down or they’ll start killing their families, it would be horrible and cowardly to then blame the police for whatever actions those cartels took when the police continued their duty and tried to stop them.

    Now someone brought up holding Jenny responsible for the harm that comes from her misinforming parents about vaccines, and the Pope’s demanding people not use contraceptives causing harm in the spread of AIDS. That person wonders exactly what the difference is.

    To me the difference is obvious. The harm that Jenny and the Pope are causing is directly because of people following their bad information. They INTENDED people to take the actions they recommended and the harm followed from that. For Terry’s actions to be equivalent, he’d have to be saying something like “I believe the Muslim people should murder people at the embassy and that burning this book is morally horrible”, or Jenny McCarthy would have to be saying “I believe vaccines are necessary and the idiots that disagree need to disappear”. In other words, there is no equivalence at all. His actions are stupid, but unless you can show that he was actually TRYING to incite them to violence, he was doing nothing more than expressing his opinion, and he at no point was preaching that violence was the solution (in this case at least).

    THAT is the key difference here, so there is no contradiction.

  • coyotenose

    Without getting into this debate (hopefully), I hold Palin, Beck, Angle, et al to be morally responsible for Gabby Giffords’ shooting, for egging on people over whom they have influence. However, I don’t find them legally responsible. I don’t think they quite crossed over into that territory.

    I do not hold Terry Jones to be even morally responsible for the U.N. murders. He’s a grandstanding douche who endangers people for profit and attention, but he holds no discernible influence over the murderers, and has promoted no violence. He’s helping radical religionists to expose themselves. It’s akin to asking a politician, in private, if he would consider taking a huge bribe from you, and secretly recording his response.

    … and then the politician goes nuts and murder-suicides his family because his career is ruined. Doesn’t mean he should have been left alone.

  • Luther

    Being a vegetarian, would I be justified in doing some random act of violence because some kill animals for food and fur?

    If I did that should they be punished? (No, their actions are legal)

    Or if I get upset at the treatment of Bradley Manning, if I choose not to pay my taxes, should the Army be held accountable for my actions? (No, they should be held accountable for their actions, and those that tax me for their failure to act because they have participated in a crime and at least negligence)

  • Gibbon

    Jynx

    Lighting your personal property on fire on your private property (or someone’s property from whom you have permission) in an expression of your personal beliefs should remain legal and morality simply does not come into play.

    But we’re dealing with more than just a person’s private property. We are dealing with a book that is of such high symbolic and cultural value to a particular population that it is sacred to them. The sacred changes the game entirely as it is what makes the difference between burning the Qur’an and burning The God Delusion for example. The fact that there is that sacred element to it is what makes desecration of that book of moral concern, because it establishes the book at the heart of a particular culture, and so any intentional damage to the book basically constitutes an attack on the culture and hence the people to whom that culture belongs, and that is regardless of whether the book is the legal property of the desecrator. This all revolves around what I would refer to as cultural ownership.

    AxeGrrl

    Except that fire is a mindless physical phenomenon ~ the concepts of accountability and/or responsibility cannot be applied to it.

    whereas, the human beings who decided to kill are responsible for their actions and should be held accountable for them.

    I understand why you’d want to use that analogy, but as you can see, it’s not the greatest.

    Good god! Do you not understand what a metaphor is? Jones was the one that provided the ignition spark for the fire that was the Afghan mobs and UN killings. Granted it may have been other people who worsened the situation to that point by throwing accelerant on that fire, the fact still remains that Jones started it, and thus bears at least a small portion of responsibility for what happened. You simply cannot pretend that what that mob did to the UN workers occurred in isolation; what a person does is not solely the result of the individual themself, environmental factors, including other people also contribute to determining the choices and actions a person makes, to believe otherwise is a delusion.

  • Nordog

    Discussions like this always make me think of the following:

    A beautiful young woman has every right to get really drunk, accept an inviataion to a Hells Angels party, show up in a string bikini, and not be sexually assaulted.

    She has that right.

    To which I say, “Good luck with that.”

  • Jesus

    I see a lot of ludicrous arguments on this list, so I’m not sure I even want to bother with this. BUT, Terry Jones can not be blamed for those deaths. In my opinion, we should burn a bible, a koran, and a torah every single day and broadcast it worldwide so that every crazy idiot out there will see it. Hopefully it will become so commonplace to them that they will only kill 1 person per burning.

    Then the ‘morality’ of burning the book will be mostly negated.

  • Vanessa

    @StaggerLee

    I like your analogy of Jones being the alcohol. I think that fits.

    @Gibbon

    Cultural ownership? That’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard. IT’S A BOOK.

  • Matteo Watkins

    I think it’s an arrogant dumbass thing to do for one reason only. That is that some other shmuck is covering Jones’ ass when he pisses some lunatic off. Burn a Koran… piss off a complete idiot, who then goes and blows somebody up. It’s great to talk in broad concepts of law, rights, and freedom of expression, and to offhandedly blame the muslims for the ensuing violence (it’s true, they are morons for reacting with violence, reacting at all really), but it’s also quite convenient to shoot off your mouth when you’ve got some poor enlisted bastard, who just wants to get through his tour, between you and the guy your taunting… unfortunately, it is perhaps some poor guy in the middle who will take a bullet for Terry Jones’ posturing. I just think it’s kind of chicken shit for Jones to burn a Koran from the safety provided by others. I think he should burn a Koran… but send the prick to Afghanistan and make him do it there… he might not be so cavalier if it was his own ass on the line.. he’s a cowardly opportunist media whore. Personally, I think he’d be better considering not his rights to burn a Koran, but rather how his actions may affect somebody else… this isn’t between Jones and Muslims…there are good folks stuck in the middle who shouldn’t have to pay the price for Jones.. it’s just stupid, stupid that his desire to push his point (right or wrong) out weighs his discretion at the possibility of how his egotistical games can hurt others… I think Jones is at fault here, he simply can’t blame those who retaliate and make it all ok…in the end he’s making his points at somebody elses expense. Not on.

  • AxeGrrl

    Gibbon wrote:

    You simply cannot pretend that what that mob did to the UN workers occurred in isolation; what a person does is not solely the result of the individual themself, environmental factors, including other people also contribute to determining the choices and actions a person makes, to believe otherwise is a delusion

    When a person decides to kill another person because they were ‘inspired’ by someone who destroyed a book, I most certainly do hold them and them alone responsible for that particular action.

    Being ‘offended’ or ‘outraged’ are feelings ~ mature human beings always have a choice when it comes to how they’re going to react to such feelings…..

    The murderers weren’t being ‘threatened’ (physically or otherwise), they weren’t defending themselves from harm…..they could have chosen a dozen different ways to react to their being ‘offended’ ~ and they chose murder.

    No one else made that decision for them. Therefore, the responsiblity for that particular decision is theirs alone.

  • Jon Dow

    From the article: “Jefferson would turn over in his slave.” A simple typo or a reference to Sally Hastings? o.O

  • Throughout this discussion, I see people missing one very relevant point: Jones performed his bigoted little performance in a country (the US) with a very small, beleaguered Muslim populace. This populace, as a minority faith, is experiencing increasing levels of bigotry from all quarters—the government, religious people of other faiths, and non-believers alike. People in the US see anyone who looks like a Muslim and instantly think “terrorist” or “violent radical”. It doesn’t matter what one’s personal relationship or approach with Islam or one’s god might be. It doesn’t even matter what your actual religion is. If you have a certain shade of skin, a certain accent, or a certain style of dress, people see you and instantly think of violent, bomb-slinging brown people.

    I’ll be blunt. Jones is a prejudicial man whose actual goal is to spread his animosity far and wide. Essentially, he is spreading hatred in a country and in a world that already has far too much of it. Hatred tends to breed more hatred. This should be the primary focus. Consequently, I hold him responsible for his prejudice and I hold him responsible for all of the actions he commits thereof. I condemn Jone’s public burning of the Quran. I don’t care that it was his book and that he had a right to burn it. The legality of the matter is irrelevant. The fact remains that he is a hate-filled person doing hateful things. His actions bring harm into the world.

    No caveats.

    No special considerations.

    No excuses.

  • Gibbon

    Vanessa

    Cultural ownership? That’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard.

    Of course it is one of the most ridiculous things you have ever heard, you’re a stereotypical atheist. You are wrapped up in this anti-religious mentality so much that you scorn and ridicule with an almost religious fervour anything that does not fit with your biases and preconceptions of religion. In other words, you’re unwilling to accept anything which may force you to reconsider your attitude towards religion, unless of course it comes from the physical sciences.

    Regardless of your beliefs, the fact still remains that there is something which establishes with the people of any given culture a sense of possession towards any and all relics of that culture, even if material possession of the relic resides with a person who is not a member of that culture. There is that connection, or at the very least the belief that such a connection exists. How else do you explain any and all events which compare to the Muslim response to Terry Jones?

    IT’S A BOOK.

    The book is sacred, maybe not to you or I, but it is to the people of a specific culture. Do you not understand what the sacred is and what it means? Are you even capable of comprehending the sacred?

    AxeGrrl

    When a person decides to kill another person because they were ‘inspired’ by someone who destroyed a book, I most certainly do hold them and them alone responsible for that particular action.

    Being ‘offended’ or ‘outraged’ are feelings ~ mature human beings always have a choice when it comes to how they’re going to react to such feelings…..

    The murderers weren’t being ‘threatened’ (physically or otherwise), they weren’t defending themselves from harm…..they could have chosen a dozen different ways to react to their being ‘offended’ ~ and they chose murder.

    No one else made that decision for them. Therefore, the responsiblity for that particular decision is theirs alone.

    Yet the choices we make are limited to those which are available to us. I can’t make the decision to take the train rather than drive a car unless the train is available. I can only choose from the options that are open to me. What you don’t seem to realise is that not everyone has the same choices available. In the case of the UN murders we are dealing with the citizens of Afghanistan, a corrupt and poverty-stricken third-world nation; a citizenry which is not nearly as privileged as us inhabitants of developed first-world nations. They don‘t have available to them all the choices and options that you and I do.

    The fact still remains that how a person responds is not determined solely by the individual themselves, but also how they are treated and more generally, their environment. How else do you explain the fact that how a child is raised plays a significant influence in determining their personality later in life? The possibility for influence stays open even after we reach maturity.

    A person’s response is not solely the result of themselves; their beliefs/personality or whatever, do play an important role in shaping their response (keeping in mind of course that personality and what a person believes are also influenced by external factors), but the form and shape of environmental factors do contribute to the form and shape of the response. If I give a sweating athlete a drink of water that will affect what their response will be, just as kicking them instead would also influence how they would respond. Either of these actions increases the likelihood of a particular response being produced. Their response to me kicking them would be different to what they would do if I gave them the water.

  • AxeGrrl

    Gibbon wrote:

    Yet the choices we make are limited to those which are available to us. I can’t make the decision to take the train rather than drive a car unless the train is available. I can only choose from the options that are open to me. What you don’t seem to realise is that not everyone has the same choices available. In the case of the UN murders we are dealing with the citizens of Afghanistan, a corrupt and poverty-stricken third-world nation; a citizenry which is not nearly as privileged as us inhabitants of developed first-world nations. They don‘t have available to them all the choices and options that you and I do

    I appreciate the point you’re making Gibbon, and I do agree that there are many things that influence how someone reacts to something……influence, yes. But dictate, no.

    Yes they have fewer choices/options than we do, but that doesn’t mean that their decision to murder was their ONLY choice.

    It wasn’t.

  • PhiloKGB

    @ Gibbon:

    I don’t know if I understand “the sacred.” Does it mean something whose intentional destruction would motivate me to kill a random person of the same nationality? If so then no, I don’t understand “the sacred,” or at least I don’t consider any inanimate objects sacred. Furthermore, I’ve not always been an atheist, yet I can’t recall having ever considered anything “sacred” by that definition.

    It is, however, my opinion that the kind of “sacred” I just described is completely appalling, unacceptable, and ought to be discouraged in the strongest possible terms. And I can’t imagine why my personal unfamiliarity with “the sacred” disqualifies that opinion.

    How about a compromise: I won’t try to deconstruct “the sacred” if you’ll acknowledge that killing people for defacing it is wrong without qualification.