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Journalists turn Quran-Burning Transcription Fodder into a Conversation

The Obama administration revealed late Tuesday that is prepared to unveil a new blah de blah initiative in the upcoming weeks despite the pressures of the oncoming congressional election season. “Blah de blah blah blah, blah blah de blah,” Defense Undersecretary Blahford Blahdepants explained in a press briefing. “Blah de blah blah, blah blah, blah blah.”

How many times have you read news articles taking that form? They could be written by monkeys, considering how little independent thought is required to generate them. Step 1: Capture quote at a news conference. Step 2: Figure out who said it using handy name plate technology. Step 3: Hang quotation marks around it. Step 4: Publish!

There are journalists who simply report what others say without comment. Some more thought is required by the journalists who attend the government’s various press briefings and ask questions. The spokesfolks who provide the daily supply of quotations for the newspapers have an interest in saying just what they want to say and no more. The first answer to a question in a daily press briefing is usually scripted. Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley began his press briefing yesterday by delivering a scripted remark on the planned burning of a Koran in Florida.

Question: Thank you, sir. P.J., as we approach 9/11 and also the Eid, and now we have a special session this evening here with the Secretary and also Special Representative for Muslims Ms. Pandith and you have heard the warnings from General Petraeus in Afghanistan, where – how do you characterize the relations between the United States and the Muslims around the globe and especially here in [inaudible] America and – because you see a lot of things are happening because – burning of the Qu’ran – Qu’ran and all those things are going to create so much problems, sir?

Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley: Well, first of all, people need to understand that in this country, we have freedom of religion, we have a tradition of religious tolerance, we also have freedom of expression. We believe that these are fundamental principles of U.S. society. We’re very conscious of what has been discussed as potential actions down in Florida at the end of this week. We think that these are provocative acts, they are disrespectful, they’re intolerant, they’re divisive, and we’re conscious that a number of voices have come out and rejected what this pastor and this community have proposed.

And we would like to see more Americans stand up and say that this is inconsistent with our American values. In fact, these actions themselves are un-American. The pastor says that he’s contemplating these actions to combat radicalism. In fact, these actions, if they take place – we hope they don’t – will actually feed radicalism. As General Petraeus mentioned over the weekend, given social media, they can have at least as powerful an impact as the tragic events and photos of Abu Ghraib had.

But at the same time, people around the world need to also understand that America is not represented by one pastor or 50 followers. We are a nation of 300 million people. And the vast majority of Americans are standing up this week and saying that these contemplative actions are inappropriate, they’re abhorrent, and this should not happen.

This was the third scripted Obama administration remark in one day, following remarks by White House Press Secretary David Gibbs and General David Petraeus in its doublespeak message: the Obama administration loves freedom in America but this exercise of freedom is unAmerican and should not go forward. The prepared statements of Gibbs and Petraeus to that effect went unchallenged by any follow-up questions; the journalists on the White House and Defense beats were apparently satisfied with monkey-level transcription.

Journalists at the P.J. Crowley press briefing reached for something more than monkey-level transcription. Through a long series of follow-up questions, they worked to get Crowley into a conversation beyond that scripted answer. I think it’s worth reposting that conversation here:

Question: Do you reject it? You said a great many people are rejecting it. Do you reject this? Do you just flatly feel that this particular group in Florida should not do this?

Crowley: They should not do this. And as General Petraeus said, they potentially put soldiers at risk. For any American who is traveling, any diplomat in posts around the world, these put – these actions, whatever their motivation, potentially put American interest and American lives at risk.

Question: And why is it un-American, which is a word that doesn’t get lobbed around very often in this briefing room? And you point out that there are two principles here; one is sort of freedom of religion and tolerance and another one is freedom of expression, which means that you can burn American flags and so on and not be called un-American. I mean, why is it un-American for them to do this?

Crowley: Well, there – it is one thing to have a right. It’s another thing as to how one exercises that right. This is a divisive potential act of disrespect of one of the world’s great religions. And while we support – and those of us are who are constitutionally charged to defend our freedoms, including freedom of expression, this is an action that has potential serious ramifications. It is a statement of intolerance that we believe is contrary to our – how we – how – our values and how we conduct ourselves day in and day out here in the United States of America.

Question: P.J., Arshad is right. I mean, what – honestly, what could be more American than expressing one’s freedom of speech, freedom to –

Crowley: There – we –

Question: — assemble and freedom to do –

Crowley: Absolutely right.

Question: I mean, why is it that –

Crowley: But there –

Question: You wouldn’t say burning the American flag is un-American, would you?

Crowley: Well, it is inconsistent with the values of religious tolerance and religious freedom that are innate to us as Americans. You’ve got a clash of two principles here. There are – in our view, there are far better ways to commemorate 9/11 and the religious bigotry that that event represents than to commit yet another act of what I would consider to be religious radicalism.

Question: Okay. But I guess –

Crowley: Go ahead, go ahead.

Question: — I guess the point – again, I’m having a hard time –

Crowley: Right.

Question: Excuse me. I’m having a hard time understanding, first of all, why the State Department is getting involved in an issue that relates directly to a Florida church.

Crowley: Well, first of all, I was asked.

Question: Well, okay. Fair enough. But you made the – but then you made the observation that what they planned to do is un-American. And I –

Crowley: I think – there’s – there are a balance –

Question: Are you prepared to say the same thing if someone wants to –

Crowley: Look, there are a balance of interests here. But this, in our view, has the potential to inflame public opinion around the world in a way that will jeopardize American lives and American interests. It does not represent our core values as Americans. We hope it does not happen. We hope that between now and Saturday, there’ll be a range of voices across America that make clear to this community that this is not the way for us to commemorate 9/11. In fact, it is consistent with the radicals and bigot – with those bigots who attacked us on 9/11.

Question: Right. But in fact, it is – but wait –

Crowley: Hold on – Matt. Matt, others want to ask questions, too.

Question: You’re saying that this may be incitement, but it is still a First Amendment issue. What really – what recourse does the government have to, say, go to the city of Gainesville and say maybe you should not issue a bonfire or whatever it is permit and all these things?

Crowley: Well, I mean, all we really have here is a bully pulpit. The community is going to do what they do. I mean, the city government has declined to provide a permit for this event. The pastor appears to be unswayed by comments by General Petraeus and others who have expressed concern about the action that is being contemplated. We want to see – we support a vigorous debate in this country, even about issues that have great sensitivity. That said, there is a point where the debate yields to something more significant.

We are hopeful, between now and Saturday, that a range of voices, whether they’re political figures, religious figures, others, can rise and convince this community that there are better ways of commemorating 9/11 than through this action.

Question: But, P.J., one more thing. The Secretary is going to speak out this evening. And second, freedom of expression or freedom of religion doesn’t mean that you put the whole country on fire.

Crowley: Well, and, Goyal, there is another side to this. That’s true. But if this community goes ahead and – with this proposed event on Saturday, we would hope that the rest of the world will judge us not by the actions of one pastor or 50 followers, but judge us by a tradition that goes back to our founding. We did not indict entire countries or an entire religion over the actions of 9/11, and we would hope that the rest of the world does not indict the United States for the actions of one fringe element in Florida.

Question: P.J., can I ask just one on this? Are you absolutely certain that you want to stick with the word “un-American” to describe this potential action, or do you want maybe walk back from that word?

Crowley: Let me define what I meant by this. We have a tremendous tradition of religious tolerance in this country. We believe that the potential act of burning a Qu’ran shows enormous disrespect to one of the world’s great religions. It is contrary to our values. It’s contrary to how civil society has emerged in this country. It is un-American in the sense that it does not represent the views of the vast majority of Americans who are respectful of religions – of the world’s great religions.

So while it may well be within someone’s rights to take this action, we believe and hope that cooler heads will prevail and other ways can be found to promote a dialogue among the world’s greatest religions, which is what we have been trying to do here within this country and within this Department since 9/11.

Question: P.J., I wanted to ask real quick – you touched on it earlier in your remarks that General Petraeus talked about the risk to members of the military abroad. Can you say whether you have similar concerns about whether this poses any threats to Americans tourists, for example?

Crowley: I think I encompassed that in my remarks. It does. To – we’ve already seen small-scale demonstrations in various countries overseas where anxiety levels are building because of the publicity surrounding this proposed action. It does put the lives of ordinary Americans at risk, as well as diplomats, as well as soldiers.

Question: P.J., you don’t believe that as far as – because many Americans don’t like, as far as building the mosque at Ground Zero, you think anything to do with that?

Crowley: Goyal, I don’t believe that the proposed events in Florida are related – excuse me – to the debate –

Question: Bless you.

Crowley: — in New York.

Question: P.J., both General Petraeus and yourself, and presumably – and, actually, all federal employees take an oath to uphold the Constitution, to defend the Constitution. And it seems to me that whether someone wants to burn a Qu’ran or a flag or an American flag or the Bible or the Torah or any other symbol of something that we think or that the general society thinks is a good or a great thing – like the flag is a symbol of the country which people routinely say is going to have the greatest example of representative democracy on earth, and yet, when people burn American flags in this country or around the world, we don’t hear this kind of thing saying that that’s un-American. In fact, that’s protected speech.

So I guess what my question is that it seems to me that while it may be against the values of the great majority of Americans for them to do it, you and people in this government, as sworn defenders of the Constitution, have the obligation to defend their right to do it, regardless of how abhorrent you find it.

Crowley: And, Matt, you’ve made a good scholarly and legal argument there, which I accept.

I wish I knew who “Matt” and “Goyal” and “Arshad” were, because I would like to send them flowers. They refused to take a government spokesman’s rote statement at face value yesterday and instead forced him into a conversation that moved him from one position (burning Qurans is unAmerican and inflammatory and Americans should not do it) to another (the U.S. government has a constitutional obligation to defend the free speech of Americans, even when a majority disagrees with the content of that speech).

Please, sirs, I want some more.

4 comments to Journalists turn Quran-Burning Transcription Fodder into a Conversation

  • Oh, that’s rich. People who dare to criticize a globally popular religion “potentially put soldiers at risk”. Has any soldier anywhere actually been harmed because a Koran was burned? Does the Obama White House have any proof of that? Of course not.

    And now we’ve got Barack Obama’s Administration arguing that it’s an affront of freedom of religion for someone to refuse to honor someone else’s religious beliefs? How can we have freedom of religion if we aren’t free to blaspheme against Islam?

    The Obama Administration’s twisting of the concept of freedom is way out of wack, and absolutely against the pro-Constitution position we were told Barack Obama would take as President.

    Barack Obama is now using his power to put forward the George W. Bush idea that exercising freedom of conscience is irresponsible and unacceptably dangerous. I think that the Koran burners are idiots – because they actually believe that Islam is a satanic religion, and because they’re funding Koran printers with their protest. My opinion about their stupid protest is my private opinion, however. They have the right to protest, and the Obama White House should be defending that right, not stooping to meddle in affairs of religious opinion.

    Why should civil libertarians work to re-elect Obama? Why should Americans who support true freedom of religion lift a finger to give Barack Obama a second term?

    Obama has allowed himself to be spooked by the idea that many Americans think he’s Muslim. He’s allowed this fear to transform him into a puppet of the anti-freedom right wing. What a wimpy waste of a President.

    • Jim

      I agree with you except when it comes to the last paragraph. If Obama were being spooked by the idea that many Americans think he’s Muslim, then wouldn’t he be eager to distance himself from Islam on this point by sticking up for the right of this Florida church to burn Korans? And in this particular instance, many in the right wing who’ve been insisting that Muslims have no right to religious worship are suddenly standing up for freedom of speech for the Koran-burning Christian pastor. They support freedom for American Christians but not for American Muslims. That’s a dictionary definition of bigotry.

  • Steve

    I can accept that Mr. Crowley was trying to make a distinction between two different interpretations of “un-American.” The country does have a long tradition of tolerance, not just of various religions, but also races, lifestyles and more. The American view of liberty includes the acceptance that each of us is free to live his life as he/she chooses, which embodies a certain tradition and culture of respect for others. But there’s also the legal and Constitutional view of what it means to be American, which is also part of our tradition, and that includes a nearly absolute freedom of expression. I don’t see any conflict with saying that the proposed Quran burning is “un-American” in the sense that it runs counter to our tradition of respecting others, while also saying that America guarantees an inalienable right for people to express themselves.

    • Jim

      Steve, I hear where you’re coming from, but I disagree with your (and Crowley’s) premise. Canada and Europe have traditions of “respect” for others’ religions with social enforcement of that “respect”.

      I don’t believe that the United States of America has a tradition of “respect” for other religions. It has a long history of loud, boisterous and vehement competition between religions.

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