Various unknown Protestant ministers have recently tried the pathetic attention-getting strategy of threatening to burn copies of the Koran. This deplorable activity offends our sense of common decency and respect for others, but at the same time it is protected by our fundamental norm of free speech. The press, never to be outdone in pursuit of attention, has projected these sad and twisted individuals to world-wide visibility. Politicians have not been slow to pronounce, and even our military commanders have stated publicly what was already obvious: that these disgusting acts of disrespect for others would be used by our enemies abroad to recruit terrorists to attack our military in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Amid the scramble to pronounce over the goings-on in empty lots near obscure churches there has been an important element of confusion, and no small dose of hypocrisy. First, let’s consider the confusion. The primary reason to oppose the inflammatory Koran burnings is that they are fundamentally crude and disrespectful acts, meant to demean and humiliate others. Our system of free expression allows such depravity, but it also permits the natural response to it: moral suasion and public denunciation. Our first and best defense against mean-spirited acts such as the burning of texts, sacred and otherwise, is to shame the would-be perpetrators. The vulgarians have been “called out” and subjected to our justifiable scorn—so far the system has worked.

Confusion began when people who should have known better focused on a different argument for not defiling the Koran—the fear of reprisal. This argument, first raised by General Petraeus, and subsequently by the Defense Secretary and the President of the United States, correctly notes that inflammatory acts such as the Koran burning will likely incite an angry response among Muslims, and that it will be abused to incite reckless people to attack out troops. However, the reason to give due respect to minority religious beliefs is not the fear that they might attack us if we do not; it is rather that a decent respect for others calls for certain minimum standards of conduct—such as not burning the texts that they hold sacred. It is not from fear that we should act with dignity, it is rather that we should do so because we are a decent and civilized people. Claiming otherwise leaves us open to the endless choler and irresponsibility of the lunatic fringe.

No sooner had the president pronounced on the dangers posed to our troops by the Koran burning than Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf opined that to not build the “Ground Zero Mosque” would lead to adverse public opinion in the “Muslim world” and that our “national security” now depends on discourse about the mosque. No sooner had the minister thought better of his folly than several other fringe preachers picked up the torch and threatened their own Koran burnings. By noting the threat to our troops, General Petraeus and the President raised the false expectation that they could prevent all such ugliness, but in the current environment there will be no shortage of fools willing and ready to pose before a camera as they burn a copy of the Koran. Moral suasion and good sense will not stop all of them, but we can make it clear that we do not share their twisted vision. Our public discourse needs to be united in its contempt for the fringes, rather than allowing itself to be taken hostage by them.

The second theme that has emerged during the recent brouhaha has been the hypocrisy of those who, while correctly insisting on respect for the sensibilities of Muslims, have treated similar sensibilities of Christians with contempt. Recall the controversy stirred by ugly works of hatred against Christianity that were thinly veiled as art. “Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano, purporting to be a photograph of a crucifix suspended in the “artist’s” own urine, or “Holy Virgin Mary” by Chris Ofili, complete with elephant dung and other signs of disrespect for a cherished Christian icon. Those works enjoyed not only the forbearance of the authorities, but actually received subsidies, either directly in the case of the Serrano work, or indirectly by being displayed in publicly funded galleries. While Serrano and Ofili were denounced by some, their acts of disrespect were embraced by others as “valuable perspectives” on Christianity. Well, followers of the “Prince of Peace” were angered, but no one’s safety was ever at much risk from angry Christians thirsty for retribution. In that case, respect for the sensibilities of others was not enough to ostracize those who defiled Christian symbols. When some of the same people speak against the affront of burning the Koran they make clear that it is not respect for others that motivates them, but fear of retribution. For shame.

As long as our fellow citizens are willing to respect those of us who do not share their creed, even when we refuse to ever convert, as long as they are willing to respect our civil rights, we should respect their freedom of conscience, rather than belittling it. Our basic decency, rather than a cringing fear of the wrath of the Muslim world, is the best defense against the lunatic fringe.