More Lindsey Graham on Koran-burning: "I wish we could hold people accountable for their actions, but under free speech, you can't"

My first draft of the headline was “Good news: Lindsey Graham doesn’t want to ban Koran-burning after all,” but that’s not quite true. He recognizes that you can’t ban it constitutionally and that a constitutional amendment to ban it wouldn’t pass, but wanting to ban it?

That’s a bit more nuanced.

NRO: Some of my National Review colleagues are being pretty rough on you today. What is your response to some of the outrage on the right about your comments regarding free speech?

GRAHAM: General Petraeus sent a statement out to all news organizations yesterday, urging our government to ban Koran burning. Free speech probably allows that, but I don’t like that. I don’t like burning the flag under the idea of free speech. That bothers me; I have been one of the chief sponsors of legislation against burning the flag. I don’t like the idea that these people picket funerals of slain servicemen. If I had my way, that wouldn’t be free speech. So there are a lot of things under the guise of free speech that I think are harmful and hateful…

NRO: But don’t you fear that if we let Islamic extremists determine the speech debate in the United States, then we’ve lost something?

GRAHAM: No. Here’s what I fear: I fear that politicians don’t have any problem pushing against laws in the Middle East that are outrageous. It’s perfectly acceptable for me to push back against prosecutions by Islamic countries against people of my faith. And it is perfectly appropriate for me to condemn Koran burning when the general who is in charge of our troops believes that such action would help. I’m not letting Islamists determine what free speech in America is, but I am, as a political leader, trying to respond to the needs of our commander. You’ve got to remember, General Petraeus decided that this was important enough to get on the record as being inappropriate. And I want to be on the record with General Petraeus.

NRO: Instead of being an advocate for Petraeus, should you not first and foremost be an advocate for the First Amendment?

GRAHAM: You know what? Let me tell you, the First Amendment means nothing without people like General Petraeus…

NRO: What I don’t understand is, if would you support an amendment to ban flag burning, why do you not support one to ban Koran burning?

GRAHAM: In my view, the flag represents who we are as a nation. It is a symbol of who we are. If you start talking about individual acts of religious intolerance, the amendment doesn’t make any sense. It does make sense, to me, to focus on the symbol of the country, the flag. I’m not proposing that we propose a ban on religious disagreement. I am saying that you can disagree with America; you can disagree with me, but don’t burn the one symbol that holds us together. That’s not an act of speech. They say that is symbolic speech, but I think that is a destructive act. It’s the one thing that unites us.

Yet when it comes to regulating what individual churches may do, or what individual citizens may do under the guise under religion, you are not going to be able to write a constitutional amendment to ban those practices. There is no way to do that. I wish we could hold people accountable for their actions, but under free speech, you can’t.

Read the whole interview. The excerpts don’t capture the full flavor, especially the effusiveness with which he defers to Petraeus when pressed to defend a constitutional right here at home. (Incidentally, did Petraeus call for a “ban” on Koran-burning? His statement yesterday condemned the practice but I haven’t seen anything about calling for a ban.) What’s interesting, and telling, is how he oscillates between wishing we could sanction Koran-burning on its own terms (“harmful and hateful”) and wishing we could sanction it for expedient reasons, because it increases the risk to troops in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan (the “we’re at war” justification). I can sympathize with the latter even if I think it’s horribly misguided because, in his own short-sighted way, he means well. He’s trying to produce a good-ish outcome in Afghanistan, and the fewer pretexts there are for the local mullahs — and Hamid Karzai! — to drive true believers into a frenzy over blasphemy, the better. That’s why Petraeus gets a pass on this from a lot of people even though Graham doesn’t: He’s narrowly focused on a military mission whereas Graham should be weighing a variety of considerations, starting with the virtues of free speech. But I don’t know where the limiting principle is in the “hateful and harmful” calculus, and I’d bet that, if pressed, he doesn’t either. Again: This guy would have been a top contender for Attorney General if McCain had been elected. Amazing.

Update: NRO has amended the part where Graham says Petraeus was calling for a ban; it now reads “urging our government to [condemn] Koran burning.” It’s not clear if that was Graham’s mistake or theirs, but either way, the record is corrected.

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