President Obama has shown the courage to speak often about his hopes of building bridges between Islam and those Americans who are intolerant of that faith. This has occurred in contrast to his relative silence on race relations in America.
Yet just because he should be more vocal on race at a time when racial tension in America is mounting does not mean that he should scale back his efforts to make peace whenever possible between the Islamic world and America.
Pastor Terry Jones and his tiny church are one example. Some people have problems with the federal government intervening to convince Jones to halt the Quran-burning event that his church had been planning — and rightly worry about the impact on his First Amendment rights.
There is a conflict here, one that we must monitor to prevent such incidents from becoming a template for government to restrict free political speech. However, there is the bigger conflict that the president, the secretary of state and the military are also keeping in mind. They understand that we are fighting an invisible, borderless nation of terrorists who can strike at any time, a threat that would become even more likely after a provocation such as the defiling of the Quran.
Creating unnecessary incitement through an expression of our First Amendment rights does not make that act right, particularly if it puts thousands of American lives at risk. A man of faith such as Jones — a Christian who likely holds a pro-life position on abortion — should be able to see that human life is worth much more than exercising the right to express himself to the point of prompting revenge killings.
Granted, there have been plenty of incidents of U.S.-flag burning within the Muslim world and among factions of anti-American insurgents. There have been threats against the United States and its allies (including Israel) for decades now, many directed against us by hard-line Muslims. The disrespect and the threats are real and vile. The terror and violence that have come as a result of these sentiments must be addressed directly with valor and powerful persistence. However, we must respond in the proper way — better still, in the American way.
As a nation, we will forfeit that collective strength as a force of good in the world if we cower before radicalism or extremism in any form — whether religious, racial, economic or social. From both military and cultural perspectives, we cannot encourage peace between Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Middle East and throughout the world if we condone inflammatory behavior designed to stoke the fires.
Because our nation holds so dear the First Amendment right of free speech, we must also disavow events such as book burnings, knowing that it is more liberating to allow the existence of books we disagree with in order to freely change the hearts and minds of those who oppose us. The burning of books ignites ugly reminders of Nazi Germany.
Unlike the Nazis, we are not a nation that expresses opposition through the destruction of intellectual competition. Unlike the Nazis, we are not a nation that purges a culture in order to show our distain for particular events. We are a nation that has hung our own presidents in effigy (including George Washington). We are a nation that has marched on our federal government in loud vocal protest. We are a nation that has called for changes in our state laws and alterations to our Constitution to promote justice within our borders.
Therefore, we cannot allow these traditions of free speech and peaceful discord to be destroyed by the threat of a book burning by a small church in Florida. Obama, Clinton, Petraeus and others cannot order the church to stop (that would be crossing the line), but there is value in reaching out and reminding Americans that there is a way to win both wars — the one being fought on the battlefields as well as the one for the hearts and minds of Muslims, Jews and Christians in a world desperately longing for peace.
Lenny McAllister is a syndicated political commentator and the author of an upcoming new edition of the book Diary of a Mad Black PYC (Proud Young Conservative): The Obama Era, Part I (2008-2010), due out in the fall. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.