Unethical Quote of the Month: #1 American Asshole, Rev. Terry Jones

...or "The Rev. Terry Jones Story"

“If you want to be technical, I guess we broke our word. We thought twice about it.”

—-Rev. Terry Jones, agreeing with criticism that he had promised last September not to burn the Quran, but did so anyway last month when he felt that his anti-Islam campaign was not getting enough headlines.

If you want to be technical, Rev. Jones is probably the biggest asshole in the United States right now. I know, I know—civility. But there are rare situations in which only our crudest, most insulting words can fairly describe individuals and acts. Rev. Jones richly deserves the asshole label, indeed the U.S. Champion, Gold Plated, #1 Asshole label, because nothing else adequately describes his reckless, self-promoting, hateful, irresponsible, deadly, virtually treasonous conduct—all completely legal, of course.

What do you call someone who pours gasoline on a brush fire to get attention? Jerk is too mild. What do you call someone who intentionally makes a difficult problem of international perception even more difficult—intentionally? Fool is too kind.  Unethical, my staple, is too abstract. There just is no civil term for someone like Jones.

He is an asshole. There are others running loose right now—Julian Assange, Michael Moore, Charlie Sheen—but none come close to Jones.

Immediately after he burned the Islamic holy book on March 20, an enraged  mob in Afghanistan  attacked a U.N. compound in Mazar-i-Sharif, killing seven U.N. employees. Jones was pleased—he finally got the publicity for his tiny 30-person Christian congregation at the Dove World Outreach Center that he had failed to receive when he announced that he was putting the Quran “on trial.” Kangaroo courts presided over by wacko pastors don’t make news, but deadly riots do.  There are still riots in Afghanistan over his “broken word.” People are dead, many are hurt. His actions are endangering the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Jones’ defense:

“Is it a provocation that should lead to death? When lawyers provoke me, when banks provoke me, when reporters provoke me, I can’t kill them. That would not fly.”

Asshole. He knew with 100% certainty that his actions would provoke violence. He can’t create the provocation and duck accountability by saying, “they really shouldn’t react that way.”  They do react that way, he knows it, and his conduct cannot be excused because it “shouldn’t” have happened, because he wanted it to happen. His Quran burning was  streamed live on the Internet. To make certain he enraged Muslims overseas, Jones included Arabic subtitles to the Web video.


20-year-old Afghanistan protester Jalil Ahmad offered his own assessment of Jones. “He is not a human being, he is a brain-dead animal.” Not bad…still not quite right.

Terry Jones—I’m sick of calling him “pastor” or “reverend”, as he disgraces both of those titles—is not an elected official, he is not an expert on Islam or the Middle East, and he has no business meddling in delicate international relations and putting both Americans and the citizens of foreign lands at risk. He is the epitome of a U.S. citizen who abuses the First Amendment for selfish ends, aided by the internet, which makes Free Speech in the hands of an asshole the equivalent of an AK-47 in the hands of a 9-year-old.

I detest restrictions on our rights to free speech. I think they are dangerous.  One of the many ways First Amendment-wielding assholes like Jones harm the nation is by making the idea of restricting Free Speech  look attractive to intelligent people, creating a real peril for our most precious ideal. The ability of the internet to make irresponsible speech deadly, however, may require some kind of restrictions to stop future Joneses from sparking a world war. No one who ever falsely shouted “Fire!” (or “Charlie Sheen!”) in a crowded theater caused a fraction of the harm Jones’ stunt has caused.

It may be that in this technologically-linked, culturally-explosive world  the United States can no longer tolerate the worst of our assholes. Mere jerks and fools can be endured, and we once were able to let our assholes frolic as well. Terry Jones, the worst asshole within memory,  may have spoiled it for the rest.

19 thoughts on “Unethical Quote of the Month: #1 American Asshole, Rev. Terry Jones

  1. I understand your reluctance to grace this… well… asshole with the title of “reverend,” but failure to do so risks conflation with the Terry Jones who, as a member of Monty Python and thereafter, has long made people laugh in mirth, not disgust.

    • Congratulations, “Reverend” Jones – you have shown us all the true definition of the word “terrorist”. When are you going to realize that religious bigots such as you are the problem? You support the Bible saying that book-burning is OK – in the same bible it OKs slavery and ownership of women! As an American who actually BELIEVES in democracy, I apologize to all assholes; equating you to them is disrespectful to assholes everywhere. Grow up and quit being a bigot. Peace, Dan Kennan

  2. This is just bad all around: not only have goodwill efforts in the Muslim world have been set back by who knows how much time, but law-abiding Muslims in the Western world will probably have to suffer for the sins of their foreign coreligionists, while paradoxically making some more reasonable-minded people lump in good-willed critics of Islam with the crazy ones, especially if people start paying more attention to the demagogues. And of course, those cowards who wanted us to self-censor after the Muhammad cartoon brouhaha will feel vindicated, and I expect to see more otherwise reasonable people self-censor themselves, even when what they have to say or show serves some constructive purpose. (Somehow, I wonder if Terry’s true goal is not just to win publicity, but to create an environment of fear where demagogues like himself can prosper).

    Still, with the fact that pretty much everyone who died in the riots had nothing to do with Terry, this is a case where I honestly have no dog in the fight. Also, Karzai has been pretty irresponsible himself, saying that the US has to take personal action against this sort of thing (despite all the protections of the 1st Amendment), instead of calling for Afghans to calm down and take the higher ground.

    • Do you think it is reasonable to expect Karzai to understand the First Amendment? Heck, most Americans don’t understand it. I bet a vast majority of world citizens assume that what Jones did is a crime.

      • I would have thought that most world citizens would regard the fact that what Jones did is not treated as a crime in America as evidence of the very anti-Islamic bias he seeks to promulgate.

      • True, but at least he could make more of an effort to make Afghans not hurt people who had nothing to do with Terry (though it’s possible that many of the more violent protesters are insurgent plants, since at least some of the protests were relatively peaceful).

        And it’s true that while most world citizens may regard what Terry did as a crime, I have a feeling that in the Western world, you have a good number of people who sympathize with the reverend, or at least blame the rioters more than they do him. I just hope that once we leave Afghanistan, the people will be more concerned about their own state of affairs, the way the Egyptians seem to be at the moment.

        • Oh, look: the rioters are accountable, and I would never say that Jones is more to blame for the violence than the people doing the violence. They are committing crimes by any standard. Jones didn’t force them to get people wounded and killed.

          • Heh, I wasn’t arguing that you were claiming otherwise. And I can understand why you would chose to focus on Terry; 1st Amendment ethics issues are a lot more tricky than simply understanding that “intentionally killing bystanders for a provocation they had nothing to do with is evil”, especially in this case, where you have people saying that Terry should burn another one, just to show them; I hope we don’t get Draw Muhammad Day redux (though that at least resulted in some genuinely funny and clever pictures, like abstract art Muhammad).

  3. Self promotion for Jones and his “church” and all it cost was the lives of human beings. The man performed an act that he knew would lead to death and destruction because that was his desire all along. There was no legitimate reason to burn a Quran; what Jones was seeking was the after effects of his act. He clearly wanted to see an uprising, for then he could point to them and go on and on about the followers of Islam being deranged killers, adding fuel to the fire for those who already don’t like or have a fear of Muslims. Of course, on top of that, he helped create an international problem, the scope of which has yet to be truly felt, I’m sure. And I’m certain that was something Jones likely knew as well.
    How this man could possibly call himself as a man of God, I do not know. How his followers can stay members of his church and sleep at night, I also do not know. And I agree with you Jack; this guy is an asshole (though I’d probably drop in an f-bomb adjective).

  4. I don’t want to bring up old ghosts, but when people say that EDMD will lead to violence, THIS is what they think they’re doing. There’s a large gulf between EDMD and this.

    • I agree to some extent, in that while I think drawing Muhammad just for the purpose of annoying Muslims is kind of unethical, some of the entries to EDMD were clever or funny enough that they should have been drawn anyways.

  5. Here’s a First Amendment question, that I think illustrates how ignorant even reasonably well-educated and rational Americans are of our own Rights. Perhaps I flatter myself 🙂

    I believe that burning the Koran, along with burning a Bible, a Torah, and/or the American flag, is protected free speech. Admittedly, burning a Torah will get you called a Nazi, since they were the preeminent exemplars of Torah burning.

    However, shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater is not protected free speech. My impression is that it is because such a statement could cause property and personal injury, perhaps even deaths.

    Can the case be made that it is appropriate to constrain free speech when the outcome can clearly be predicted to result in violence and deaths? In this instance, it is complicated by the fact that the violence and deaths are only indirectly associated with the precipitating event – they are not occurring in the same geographic location, unlike the movie theater example.

    This is a very slippery slope, and I am not comfortable with it. Jack’s comment that “One of the many ways First Amendment-wielding assholes like Jones harm the nation is by making the idea of restricting Free Speech look attractive to intelligent people, creating a real peril for our most precious ideal. ” is spot on. But what is the alternative? “Yes, he’s an asshole, but it’s not against our law to be an asshole, and the rest of the world is wrong”?

    • Shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater is protected speech, unless it’s a lie and there is no fire, and thus intended not to covey content, but to cause harm. Inciting a riot is also not protected speech, but the test is severe, and the riot has to occur. I think a very good case can be made that Jones was intentionally inciting a riot. Close call, nevertheless.

      • Actually, there is a SCOTUS ruling on this with the majority opinion penned by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. It literally is illegal to yell fire in a crowded theater when there is none. Years later the same ruling held that it is a crime to knowingly start a riot.

        It started with Schenck v. United States in 1927, and has been confirmed with a half dozen other rulings.

        The Pink Flamingo

  6. I agree with you 100% on Terry Jones being an asshole. That being said, he is still not responsible for the riot and deaths that followed. He acted. Others chose to react in a violent and reprehensible way. And the greater fault must lie with those that chose to react. To burn a book [or flag, or any other symbol] is not and should not be regarded as cause for any logical human being to feel the need to punish or take the life of another human being. And religious freedom should not be regarded as freedom to punish someone else for not choosing to follow the same religious path.

    • I dealt with that is the post. Inciting a riot doesn’t mean the rioters aren’t culpable. But if one knows people are going to react with violence to particular stimulus,and one knowingly and intentionally provides that stimulus, one can’t minimize one’s bad conduct by blaming them. And neither can you.

      • I’m not attempting to minimize Terry Jones behavior. What bothers me most about this incident is that I’ve read so much condemnation about Jones and so little condemnation of the religious leaders who incited their followers to rage and of the individuals in the mob. Where is your ethical posting about the Muslim leaders? If we are not permitted to act stupidly against certain people because they might react violently, are we not then encouraging further limitations on our actions to accommodate the unreasonable people? Today it’s burning a Koran that will lead to violence. What if tomorrow they decide that just not following their religion is reason for a riot?
        This article says it much better than I have:

        • Susan: please don’t criticize a post about topic A by asking why I didn’t write about topic B. To begin with, it’s annoying; in addition, I specifically explain why I find it annoying in the Comments guidelines. I was writing about Jones, not about all parties in the Muslim controversies.

          Furthermore, I have enough trouble covering issues on a pan-ethics without leaving the US. 99% of the Ethics Alarms posts are about US issues, organizations, institutions and individuals. I have lower expectations for other countries and cultures, frankly—sure there is an Islamic ethicist somewhere who will point out why rioting and killing people is not a good thing.

          Finally, I don’t usually write about the obvious. Terry Jones’s unethical conduct is pretty obvious; I wrote about it to put it in perspective. Arguably, it wasn’t necessary. It certainly isn’t necessary to tell my readers that I think it’s unethical for the Muslims to riot over what a small-time publicity hound whack-job minister does here.

          How could tgt argue with me about THAT?

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