Thanks to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr it's become axiomatic that the freedom of speech doesn't extend to the right to falsely shout "Fire" in a crowded theatre. Common sense, really... and consistent with that famous jurist's pragmatic approach to constitutional rights. As it happens, though, the plaintiff he was finding against in his celebrated opinion – an American socialist called Charles Schenck who'd distributed leaflets opposing the military draft – almost certainly felt that he wasn't shouting "Fire" falsely at all.
He could smell the smoke and see the flames flickering – just as, one assumes, Pastor Terry Jones believed himself to be identifying a looming conflagration rather than merely sparking one off by his threat to burn a Koran in public on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. In the end, of course, Pastor Jones decided to keep his mouth shut and his Zippo in his pocket – a decision which was generally regarded as an eleventh-hour reprieve from a lethal stampede.
I found myself wondering about Holmes's remark in the light of the weekend's cliffhanger – and in particular the fact that his phrase presumes that the occupants of the theatre have no responsibility to protect themselves from a fatal panic. After all there are a number of ways you can react to a shout of "Fire" in the theatre. You can check for yourself whether it seems to be true before you bolt for the door. And even if you decide to err on the side of caution, you can get up and make your way in an orderly fashion to an exit. But if you decide, immediately, to knock your neighbour to the ground and trample over his face to get to the fire-door you could surely be regarded as having contributed to the catastrophe rather than simply having been a victim of it. Within reasonable limits we have a civic duty not to lose our heads when idiots decide to shout "Fire".
I'm glad to say that there was some evidence that others shared this view over the weekend. Korans were burnt and defaced in the United States (despite Pastor Jones's change of mind) because there is no shortage of morons in the world and because an almost universal consensus that something should not be done is a near perfect way of guaranteeing that it will be. But the major news networks decided not to dignify these individual acts of desecration with any coverage and, so far at least, ordinary Muslims appear to have treated them as negligible acts of folly. And they're not just right to do so for strategic reasons, I would suggest. They have a moral obligation to do that as well – and to treat excessive and violent reaction by their own zealots as part of the problem, rather than a legitimate expression of wounded piety.
Because there were two components to this crisis – which will certainly come round again sometime. There was a foolish and bigoted provocation – or at least the threat of it – and a foolish and bigoted reaction, which occurred even though the threat was never carried out. One was the flint and one was the steel – and both were necessary to create the spark. To put it a different way, the only power that Pastor Jones possessed lay in the predictable volatility of indignant Muslims. If those rioting crowds in Afghanistan really don't like Korans being burned they would almost certainly be better off ignoring the odd occasion when one is. And their more moderate co-religionists might acknowledge that this was a collaboration in folly – not a solo act.
Je t'aime ... moi non plus
I thought I detected a distinct air of gratification in reports of the opinion poll which revealed that the French – far from setting a European benchmark for sexual flair and savoir-faire – were actually not getting a lot of action. "French survey reports sex misery for most couples", read the BBC's headline, while the Telegraph reported it as "French claim to 'greatest lovers' dealt blow". The findings suggested that "three-quarters of couples have bad sex lives" – partly derived from the discovery that around half of the respondents felt "that at times they simply had 'no desire' to have sex".
But it would be distinctly odd if anything else was the case, wouldn't it? And wouldn't the obligation to have sex even when you didn't want to, count as a "bad sex life" too? What the survey appears to have revealed is that the French have quite normal sex lives – life in general often being at odds with boudoir performance. The fact that the survey was commissioned by a pharmaceutical company helps explain why these perfectly ordinary findings were presented as a disorder in the first place. No problem, no need for a pill, after all. The fact that we've always slightly resented the French for making us feel below-par in the bedroom explains why they were passed on with such unquestioning glee.
The developers who are hoping to build a religious theme park on Mallorca either know something I don't about the spiritual yearning of 10 million or so tourists who visit every year, or they have a great deal of faith. Clearly the one they've built in Buenos Aires has been successful enough for them to want to extend the Holy Land franchise – and they're presumably hoping that European piety will be as lucrative as the Latin American kind.
More cynically, perhaps, they may just be banking on the fact that the ungodly and the mockers may have as good a reason for going as true believers. It does sound unmissable. One incredulous visitor to Tierra Santa, the company's Argentine branch, reported a hitch at one of the attractions – a regular animatronic show presenting the Nativity – after which a tired-looking Roman soldier appeared to tell the waiting audience that the birth of Christ would be delayed by five minutes due to technical difficulties.
And, judging from a YouTube video, the half-hourly Resurrections are a treat too; to the sound of the Hallelujah Chorus a giant-sized Christ in Glory, complete with neon halo, is hydraulically cranked up from a large plaster mountain, wobbling gently as he rises. I also love the idea of a Last Supper that occurs eight times a day. Do they do a loudspeaker announcement urging visitors not to miss the last Last Supper? Planning permission hasn't yet been granted, apparently. Connoisseurs of kitsch can only pray for the right result.Reuse content