Terry Jones' Lethal Recklessness


A person bears moral responsibility for the foreseeable side effects of his reckless actions.

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In the wake of the appalling murder of United Nations workers in Afghanistan by a mob, roused to anger at the burning of a Koran by a Florida pastor, there has been an understandable hesitance both to condemn Terry Jones’ actions and to assert that he bears moral responsibility for these deaths. The resistance arises from two considerations. First, the moral wrong of burning a Koran seems relatively light compared to the enormity of the taking of innocent human life. To condemn both the rioters and Jones in the same breath seems to risk reducing the two wrongs to the same moral level.

Second, it seems clear to most that Jones did not himself kill any innocent persons, nor did he, strictly speaking, cause the rioters to kill anyone. Those rioters are responsible moral agents, and there is something demeaning in the suggestion that the behavior of Jones is at the root of their actions; such a thought borders on an accusation of moral immaturity. It appears that justice requires that the rioters be treated as fully responsible for what they did.

So, to repeat, there is a strong tendency to separate the two wrongs—the burning of the Koran and the lethal rioting. When, recently, Senator Lindsay Graham expressed a wish to hold Jones “accountable,” this was quickly interpreted as a weak and foolish assertion of moral equivalency and/or responsibility. Yet, at least from a moral standpoint, Graham’s desire for accountability is quite justifiable: Jones is, I shall argue, guilty of much more than simply an offense against a particular religion. Rather, he is guilty of a degree of recklessness that is morally criminal.

To see this, we need to recognize that the rioters’ actions were either intended by Jones—that is, he burned the Koran precisely in order to induce Muslims abroad to act irresponsibly—or the rioters’ actions were foreseeable side effects of Jones’ deed. In neither case, of course, were the rioters’ deeds caused by Jones’ actions, but in neither case is this necessary.

Take the first option, that Jones intended these lethal reactions. We frequently intend to achieve a goal by relying on the expected actions and reactions of others. My intention to have flowers delivered to my wife in the hospital depends, for its success, on deliberate cooperation from some other agents, but also on some actions that are not cooperative but merely predictable, such as the willingness of hospital staff to provide room information to the flower company. It does not appear to be impossible that Pastor Jones engaged in the burning of the Koran precisely because he intended—in a surely delusional way—to provoke a civilizational conflict between the Christian and Islamic “worlds.” If so, then Jones’ intention was, in fact, homicidal: he intended to provoke those whom he could to murderous violence, and in so doing, he shared their murderous intention. If so, Jones is himself morally guilty of murder, even if such a charge is impossible to sustain legally.

More plausible is the second option, that Jones merely foresaw that there would likely be lethal consequences of his actions. That such consequences were foreseen is very likely, since US officials had repeatedly warned Jones of this possibility. Jones had, on this more charitable interpretation, the intention of making a statement of some sort about the moral failings of Islam, and he made this statement by a public burning of the Koran, foreseeing that there was a real risk of death for some unspecified persons around the world.

Does the lack of a causal relationship between Jones’ actions and those effects mean that the riots and deaths were not side effects, willingly risked, of his deeds? It does not. We do, of course, include among the foreseen side effects of an action causal consequences: when I go jogging, the wear and tear on my sneakers is caused by my run, though it is not intended.

But not all side effects are caused. Consider the actions of a teacher giving just grades to her students. She foresees various reactions: joy, anger, resentment. And she can sometimes foresee actions arising from these emotions: she foresees that Smith will give up at this point and fail the class; that Jones will renew his visits to her office, cutting into her time with other students; and that Robinson will complain to the Chair, thus setting in motion a painful set of meetings and deliberations about how to respond. Yet she does not, strictly speaking, cause any of these effects.

Is our teacher morally responsible for these negative side effects? More accurately, is her acceptance of these side effects morally wrong? In most cases, we would say no. But what is crucial here is the justice of our teacher’s actions. She is carrying out her appropriate responsibilities, doing what she must in accordance with her professional role and her upright commitments. Under such circumstances, we think that the demands of her role justify the acceptance of a certain amount of negative side effects (although, in some cases, she might have additional responsibilities to alleviate, where possible, such side effects).

In some cases, our judgment is even more strongly in favor of the acceptance of bad side effects. Historically, the effect of refusing to deny one’s faith in the face of lethal threats has been death, to oneself and one’s family. Yet many religious believers have thought it absolutely impermissible to ever deny their faith. They thus willingly accepted lethal side effects to themselves and others, and seem to have been entirely justified in doing so: no amount of bad consequences is such that it “outweighs” the wrong of deliberately foreswearing one’s religion.

So in two cases, accepting bad side effects is, or can be, permissible: when the alternative is the violation of an absolute moral norm, and when the alternative is failure to perform an action one rightly takes to be obligatory.

By contrast, the foreseeable negative side effects of morally wrong acts are not only never morally acceptable; there is a strong sense that an agent who accepts such side effects accepts responsibility for those side effects in deliberately performing the morally wrong act. The agent who intends his bomb to terrorize but not to kill nevertheless is held responsible for “accidental” deaths that were foreseen as possible and accepted.

We should grant, for the sake of charity, that Pastor Jones is ignorant of the fact that, objectively, his actions in burning the Koran were morally offensive and wrong. To deliberately offend against the tenets of a religion is usually wrong, absent some overwhelming justification; to do so by committing sacrilege is generally gravely wrong.

Pastor Jones no doubt disagrees. Yet he clearly did not think that burning the Koran was obligatory, nor that failure to burn it would have violated an absolute obligation. This is clear by the history of events leading up to the burning, in which Jones threatened to burn, decided against burning, and then once more changed his mind. It is further confirmed by the appearance that Jones acted as he did primarily as a form of symbolic expression—he certainly did not think that he was bringing some form of cosmic justice to Islam by declaring it guilty of crimes against humanity.

On the best possible interpretation, then, Jones believed that what he was doing was permissible in itself, but optional—something that, absent all other considerations, would have some expressive value, but not something that he was compelled to do by his role or responsibilities. Yet Jones judged further, against the known risk that Islamic anger would lead to deadly consequences, that the lives of any innocent strangers lost as a consequence of such anger were proportionate to the good he would gain by his actions. That is, he judged it reasonable to accept any lives that might be lost as collateral damage to his goal of expressing forceful condemnation of Islam.

Such a judgment is appalling. The UN workers who were killed as a result of the Afghan riots were innocent in every way, and indeed were working to bring about peace in a troubled region, at risk and cost to themselves. It was a violation of the kind of fairness invoked by the Golden Rule for Jones to privilege his own desire to express himself above the safety of innocent human beings abroad, assuming, as I have argued, that the danger to those innocents was foreseeable as a risked side effect of Jones’ actions.

Such side effects were foreseeable and extremely grave, yet Jones did not reck them; his actions were reckless, and lethally so. And in consequence, while he did not cause the deaths of those innocents, and while his own culpability does not mitigate the responsibility of those who did cause those deaths, he bears a not insignificant moral responsibility for those deaths.

Senator Graham is, I believe, absolutely right to wish that there were some way for Jones to be held accountable. There appears not to be, legally, however, and perhaps this is for the best: upholding and applying a law that forbade the burning of holy books might be overly intrusive, and might be in tension with constitutionally protected rights. But Jones should not be allowed to hide behind his right to free speech to shield him from moral blame, nor should he be allowed to hide behind the only apparent gap in gravity between what he did, and what was done by the rioters. Willingly to accept the risk of such great damage to innocent human life for such a meaningless bit of self-expression is a morally grave wrong, even if it is not the wrong of intentionally killing the innocent.

Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. His latest book, co-authored with Robert P. George, is Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday, 2008). Tollefsen sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse.

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