In light of recent events, I'd like to repost this piece on book burning, originally from September 9, 2010. --PalMD
This week's post on book burnings spurred some interesting discussion (h/t Simon Owens). One thread of these discussions is the nature of book burning itself. From a completely ahistorical perspective, book burning is simply "speech". The burning of a book by a private citizen, or group of citizens, is simply an act of expression akin to writing an editorial or giving a speech. In the legal sense, this is probably true, and should be. Anyone should be allowed to burn a book, a flag, a cracker---anything they want in accordance with local laws (e.g. ordinances regarding such things as fire, not designed to limit speech).
But book burning has a history, a context. State-sponsored book burnings in Nazi Germany may be the most extreme manifestation, but book burning as a way to intimidate and to "erase" ideas has a long history. Just as publishing and disseminating ideas is a powerful tool, physically destroying these is both powerful and violent. While many literate people find abhorrent the idea of burning a book because of the ideas it contains, they may consider it a quirky but mostly-harmless form of expression.
It is not.
Book burning is a violent and threatening act. This isn't to say it should be outlawed, but it must be acknowledged. As with any such act, context is also important. If I were to burn a journal of mine from seventh grade, no one would care. But a pubic destruction of, say, the Qur'an is very different. It is also different from the infamous "Crackergate" of PZ Myers. Dr. Myers intentionally "desecrated" a communion wafer, and while this was offensive to many Catholics (and I found it personally distasteful) it did not create a significant threat.
Catholics are not a "despised minority" in the U.S. It is unlikely that the public desecration of something Catholic would lead to an existential threat to the Catholic population (something that was very different a century ago when Catholics, especially Irish and southern Europeans, were systematically discriminated against). This doesn't make Crackergate "OK", but it puts it on a different level in a continuum of intolerance.
Muslims, on the other had, are at risk. The anti-Muslim rhetoric in the U.S. continues to escalate, creating real fear and real harm. The planned Qur'an burning in Florida flames this hatred. It creates a real threat to a minority already under siege.
And I find hatefully disingenuous those who say, "but Muslims aren't doing enough to stop terrorism!" What is my friend and colleague who is a Muslim from Karachi supposed to do about "terrorism"? She is already against violence. Is she supposed to join the Marines? Is she supposed to give up her career and tour the country denouncing terrorism simply because someone who shares a (at least arguably) similar religious background did something bad?
Hateful, threatening acts like book burning must be called what they are: bigoted, evil, violent.