General Petraeus, Qur’an Burning and Free Speech

Reverend Terry Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center has threatened to burn copies of the Holy Qur’an to commemorate the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. This is a monstrous, bigoted and racist act that is both defamatory and degrading. General David Petraeus, the NATO and U.S. commander of American forces in Afghanistan, has publicly opposed this possible book burning as an act that would endanger American forces deployed in Afghanistan: a Muslim nation.

I think General Petraeus has set a very dangerous precedent. American military personnel should not comment on civilian actions in this country under any circumstances. They should not insert themselves in a domestic controversy that in particular encompasses protected speech in the name of national security. Our history is full of suppression of speech during wartime under the guise of endangering combat forces and the prosecution of war. From Charles Schenck, Eugene V. Debs, Howard Zinn, F. Daniel Berrigan, Joseph Frohwerk, Chicago 8, Kent State murders,  Americans have been silenced, hounded, arrested, intimidated by the FBI and killed for antiwar actions.

General Petraeus has a Ph.D. from Princeton and is America’s favourite general. He should know about the purported sanctity of civilian control of the military. He should know that an officer, especially a four-star general, has no business commenting publicly on religious matters that are clearly constitutionally-protected free speech in the U.S. Military officers should stay clear of domestic controversies particularly those that directly relate to the prosecution of war.  Rev. Jones’s intent to burn copies of the Holy Qur’an is protected speech as is flag burning in this country. I would hope that General Petraeus would never state that flag burning would undermine troop morale and pose a threat to their safety. He should not have done so in this instance and should refrain in the future from inserting himself into national controversies.

I am also struck by the fact he was in-country when he made his remarks and not even in the US. From what I heard, the general did not condemn the acts as discriminatory, hateful and bigoted but merely threw out the old chant that provocative speech is injurious to troop safety in Afghanistan. It may be. That would be one of many reasons to hope that such an action in Gainesville, Florida would not occur. Yet we have free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution even if hurtful and controversial. It cannot be suppressed and military leadership in this country should be very circumspect before they encourage the restriction of war-related protests in this nation. The book burning is done in the name of opposing “radical” Islam, whatever that means, and is taking place on September 11, 2010. It is war-related protest, albeit against our supposed adversray, and General Petraeus should “return to barracks.”

Nota bene: I own three beautiful leather bound copies of the Holy Qur’an in French that were published in Saudi Arabia and one in English. They also contain Arabic text as well. I also, for the record, support the “Ground Zero” Muslim cultural center blocks from the former World Trade Center towers and the withdrawal of American combat forces from AfPak.

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