When I was 14, a friend whose family belonged to a minority religion with peculiar beliefs gave me a leather-bound copy of his faith's holy book. I received it politely, but was slightly unnerved by the thing. I wasn't quite sure that God existed, but I knew if He did, then He definitely wasn't the god of this book's religion.
For some reason, the idea occurred to me that I could make a great hiding place for something small by hollowing out the center of the tome. Surely my parents would never, ever pull this thing off my shelf. Had I been a teenage pothead, I would have contrived to conceal my dope stash inside the holy book. But I was a teenage nerd, and the mutilated volume would have hidden nothing more exotic than a family of polyhedral Dungeons & Dragons dice.
I took my mother's scissors to the book one afternoon, and started jabbing and cutting. It was absurdly hard to get a satisfying result, and I felt stupid. But I felt more than that too. I felt strangely guilty that I was defiling this holy book. It wasn't superstition on my part. I did not think there was anything holy about this scripture, which was false, in my estimation. There would be no lightning bolts coming at me from on high for shredding the paper and ink in my unbelieving hands.
And yet, the more I struggled with the cutting, the worse I felt. I thought about my friend, a good guy, who had only wanted to share with me a faith that meant the world to him. There was little chance he would ever find out what I had done to his gift, but I would know, and I would be ashamed every time I saw him.
I put the scissors away, bagged up the mutilated holy book, threw it in the trash can and forgot about what I had done -- until last week, when the crackpot Florida pastor Terry Jones presided over the burning of a copy of the Koran.
I don't believe the Koran is divine, and though a religious believer, I support, through clenched teeth, the legal right of a free people to protest against religion even to the point of desecrating sacred symbols. Pastor Jones, as ugly as his book-burning was, did not kill those UN workers in Afghanistan. A mob of Muslim savages did.
But it will not do for Jones to wash his hands of at least some moral responsibility for the massacre. This horrifying Koran debacle provides an Information Age twist on the German poet Heinrich Heine's well-known aphorism: "Where they have burned books, they will end by burning people." Unlike hotheads in the Islamic world, we do not burn people in the West (not since 1945, anyway), so it is more difficult for us to feel the connection between destroying books -- especially holy books -- and murder.
Think, though, of what it means to defile, either through thoughtless indifference or outright malice, something that is sacred to another. In either case, the act of desecration is the supreme expression of contempt for the people who venerate the sacred object. To the targeted people, the act attempts to nullify the values they hold dearer than their own lives. If you hate the Other so intensely that you will vilify their sacred symbols in such a grotesque fashion, are you really so far from murdering them, at least in your heart?
Better to have been murdered in theory than in fact, of course. But under the right circumstances, ideas have a way of turning into deeds, hence Christ's warning about policing one's thoughts. Terry Jones -- or biologist P.Z. Myers, the secular atheist version of same - would surely contend that they are harming no person, only registering emphatic protests against bad, destructive ideas. These cretins would doubtlessly agree with the Roman church of old, in its contention that, "Error has no rights."
But the Second Vatican Council, in its declaration on religious freedom, amended that position to say that yes, error has no rights -- but erring people do. The dignity of individual humans requires granting people the right to be wrong about religious truth. To destroy a sacred book or object -- as distinct from denying a religious idea -- is to hack at the root of the human dignity of those who pledge their souls to what the icon symbolizes.
It is, in a philosophical and especially emotional sense, to kill them. We should not be surprised when this kind of symbolic violence is met with real violence among unenlightened people who have not yet received the news that they are supposed to receive the profanation of their god with gentle good humor.
Don't get me wrong: What the Afghan cutthroats did to the innocent UN workers was utterly indefensible. But it is not inexplicable. For better or for worse, there are many cultures in this world in which there are some things more holy than human life, and even, if you can believe it, the First Amendment. We must tread carefully when we walk over other people's religious beliefs, because we do not know where the land mines are buried. Both Pastor Jones and the Muslim lynch mob demonstrate the truth of Pascal's observation that, "Men never do evil so completely and joyfully as when they do it from religious conviction."
Decades ago, I turned away from desecrating my friend's holy book because at some level, I intuited that to defile something he valued so highly was to degrade a kid who did not deserve my contempt -- and, in turn, to degrade myself. I was a young teenager when I figured that out. Terry Jones is 58 years old. What's his excuse?