Every once in a while it is interesting to hold two stories side by side and compare them.
Story 1: Jesus sights
The military buys a number of telescopic sights for its rifles from a company called Trijicon. Trijicon, it seems, puts an etching on its sights that reference biblical quotes. For example, a sights might contain the etching JN8:12. This refers to John 8:12, "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."
There are certainly a number of things wrong with this type of act. It is as if the government were to issue Christian bibles and require that its soldiers carry them into battle, or to have a Christian cross included on their dog tags regardless of the soldier's personal beliefs.
However, the concern that I am interested in looking at in this case is that the references ought not to be included because it angers certain Muslims and may incite them to greater violence.
"This is probably the best example of violation of the separation of church and state in this country," said [Michael "Mikey") Weinstein [of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation]. "It's literally pushing fundamentalist Christianity at the point of a gun against the people that we're fighting. We're emboldening an enemy."
The story that I want to compare this to is the story of a Dutch newspaper that published several cartoons that some Muslims found offensive and responded to with violence. Recently, police shot a man "linked to the radical Islamist al-Shabab militia" who had broken into the home of one of the authors, Kurt Westergaard, with an axe and a knife.
What I see is an interesting point of comparison is over whether the fact that somebody is prone to respond to certain speech with acts of violence is a good reason to condemn the speaker.
There are, in both cases, good reason to condemn the speaker in these cases.
Some of the Danish cartoons commit the Bigot's Fallacy. They take qualities that are found in a subset of a particular group and they use those qualities to denigrate the whole group. They are bigoted in the same way that trying to brand all atheists with the crimes of Stalin is bigoted.
And we have good reason to condemn an act of the Government of handing out military equipment with religious inscriptions on them promoting the views of a religion that the specific soldier may not share. It is not the job of the military to indoctrinate soldiers into a specific religion.
In neither case are these objections grounded on the possibility that others might respond with violence.
If and when there are people who are prone to respond to particular text with violence, then the condemnation never falls on the person who is doing the speaking. It falls upon those who have decided to respond to words with violence. This is exactly what the doctrine of the right to freedom of speech condemns. That right states that, while a speaker has no immunity from condemnation for what he says and writes, he shall enjoy an immunity from violence or threats of violence.
When we yield to violence and threats of violence in matters of freedom of speech, we weaken that freedom for everybody. It sends a message throughout the community that responding to words with violence and threats of violence is not only effective, it is permissible. We effectively allie ourselves with those making the threats and against those who are doing the speaking.
So, is it the case that there are people who may be embolded to respond to words with violence a good reason to condemn those who issue those words? Should we count among our reasons for condemnation the fact that, "There are people who may respond with greater violence to your act of including religious inscriptions on these sights."
I would argue that this should not count as one of our reasons.
Admittedly, there is a complication here. The military's job is to win battles. So, one of the questions that the military has to ask and answer is whether a particular set of actions contributes to or reduces the possibility of winning a particular conflict. If this type of act empowers and emboldens the enemy, thus increasing their power in the battlefield, then this consequence has military implications.
Yet, it might also be argued that the Danish cartoons embolded and empowered the enemy as well. It was also an effective recruiting tool that made the Muslim forces stronger than they would have otherwise been. So, if it is permissible to condemn these religious inscriptions for empowering the enemy, then is it not also permissible to condemn the Danish cartoonists as well?
To condemn the cartoonists in a way that condones the threats of violence made against them is to abandon the principle of freedom of speech. It may help to win the battle or the war, but it does so by destroying that which the war was supposed to be defending.
As I have said, we have good reason to condemn the government for purchasing and distributing these sights, and the company for including them on the scopes. Our reasons have nothing to do with the fact that others might respond violently. They have everything to do with legitimate prohibitions against the government using the military to push a religious doctrine.
That others might respond to these words with violence is NOT one of those good reasons. It should not be included as such in this debate. Doing so requires siding with those who respond to words with violence - condoning the violence by joining the violent in condemning the speakers.