As Terry Jones and his Quran-burning stunt grow smaller in the rear-view mirror of history, it is time to take the opportunity to acknowledge the good thing that we as a nation accomplished in reacting to Jones' threat. In fact, if not for the damage that he has done by endangering American people and interests abroad, the event might be viewed as a positive indicator of the health of our country. The episode marks an important and rare moment of national agreement on two fundamental American principles.
The first piece of good news is that there was not one person of any substance who supported Jones' effort -- not one. From the range of political affiliations to every religious community, even the atheists -- nobody supported this guy. In this fractured American political environment, we had a national consensus that there were limits to offensive behavior and Islam-baiting. We decided that burning books of any kind, and especially a holy book, was an un-American activity. And with one voice we condemned it.
My guess is that Jones was surprised by this. Jones probably thought that he would be embraced as a hero by Christians who wanted to "stand up against Islam," but not one person supported him. Sarah Palin told him to sit down and shut up, articulating what all Americans were thinking. In the end, it may have been the unanimous lack of support that finally convinced Jones that he was wrong.
We must not turn the page on this episode without underlining, for ourselves and for the world, that this proposed act was universally condemned by the American public. If we fail to shout that from the mountain tops, then we are missing an important opportunity to clarify the nature of America to people around the world, especially Muslims, as well missing a chance to affirm something good that we accomplished together as one nation.
The second piece of good news coming out of Jones' debacle is that it tested our commitment to freedom of speech -- and we passed. While it is frustrating and dangerous, freedom of speech is a constitutional right in America. I never heard anyone saying that Jones couldn't burn a Quran, just that he shouldn't. He was not jailed for what he was proposing, even though expediency might have supported such an action. It is in moments of heightened anxiety that a society is most likely to think that it can meddle with basic rights in the name of security. But it is exactly during those moments when we must be most vigilant.
And we were.
This dedication to freedom, even when that freedom is crazy and offensive, is hard for other nations to understand. But if we are really going to be a beacon of democracy -- a government for the people, by the people -- we have to show the world that freedom of speech is fundamental and that we will not waver from our foundations.
A great deal of damage has been done by Jones, and the narrative that the entire affair was embarrassing for the media and a failure for our country has become common. Yet our reaction, which combined interreligious solidarity and decency with a commitment to the constitutional right of freedom of speech, made me proud to be an American.