burning of the Koran. The burning, which took place on 20 March, came months after the same pastor had decided to cancel his first planned book-burning after everyone from senior US military figures to President Obama told him not to do it. They said such a burning would incite violence across the Arab world and put US troops in danger.
In the end, he went ahead and did it anyway. So far at least one US military death is thought to be linked to the protests sparked by the Koran burning, but of course this is difficult to prove directly But throughout all of the warning issued to the pastor by the US military and politicians in the run-up to the burning everyone was keen to stress one thing – though the burning would put the lives of US troops at risk, the pastor had every legal right to burn the Koran under the freedom of speech entitled to him by the first amendment of the US constitution. So, the pastor faces no legal consequence for the Koran-burning he staged. And he is now planning more burnings starting on Good Friday in Michigan.
Contrast this to how a similar incident was handled across the pond in the UK. A man staged a public burning of the Koran at a shopping centre in Carlisle on 19 January. He was arrested, and yesterday a judge sentenced the man to 70 days in jail for religiously aggravated harassment. The judge called his stunt "theatrical bigotry".
Two similar actions, but two very different outcomes. In Europe, while the legal concept of a freedom of speech does exist, it is far less sacrosanct than in the United States. In America, restrictions on speech are extremely limited and usually only apply to speech that results in direct harm. The famous example used by the Supreme Court is shouting "Fire!" in a crowded movie theatre when no fire exists.
In Europe the bar is set much lower, perhaps because they have had not-so-distant bad experiences with out of control racist speech. Hate speech is a criminal offense in most Western European countries. In Germany it is still illegal to display the Nazi flag or to give a Nazi salute. In the US, the idea that a hand gesture could be illegal is inconceivable. In the UK, slander laws are extremely strict.
It's just one of the many differences that separate laissez-faire America from statist Europe (to use crude generalities). But it's one that manifests itself in interesting ways in instances like this one.