The deaths of the 10 International Assistance Mission medical workers inspired headlines that were both shocking and numbingly familiar, since these are dangerous times for believers whose convictions steer them into Afghanistan. A Taliban blandly leader told the press: "They were Christian missionaries and we killed them all."
If the gunmen had only waited a few weeks, they could have claimed that their victims were linked to a powerful global conspiracy to burn Korans.
That's the kind of statement that the head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission was worried about when he -- with countless other evangelicals -- urged the Rev. Terry Jones to cancel his "International Burn a Koran Day" event on Sept. 11. The leader of the tiny Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., did precisely that, but not before forcing religious and political leaders to wrestle with agonizing First Amendment issues.
"The behavior of this church is not Christian. I cannot imagine Christ burning any religious texts," argued the Rev. Richard Land, in an online Washington Post forum. "This behavior is unfortunately one of the prices we pay for living in a free society with freedom of speech and freedom of expression, even when it is odious and reprehensible."
A protest of this kind would "besmirch the reputation of our Savior, and that makes it blasphemy," he said. The whole idea was "appalling, disgusting and brainless."
The bonfire would have made life more dangerous for missionaries, human-rights activists, diplomats and American soldiers. Those flames also would have made life much more dangerous for Christian converts and members of other religious minorities in predominantly Muslim lands.
Nevertheless, these clergy and politicos had to wrestle with the fact that Jones had every right to buy copies of the Koran and, after planning a fire small enough to wink at local laws, strike a match.
After all, this would, have been another act of painful symbolic speech.
Did the American Nazis have a constitutional right to march in Skokie, Ill., a Chicago suburb that was home to numerous Holocaust survivors? Yes, and demonstrators in the Reagan White House era burned the American flag. Muslims overseas have burned copies of the novel, "The Satanic Verses," by Salman Rushdie, and Bibles, too.
How many times have followers of the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka, Kan., waved their lurid signs -- "God Hates the U.S.A." is one of the mildest -- at funerals for soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan? On Sept. 11, the Westboro Baptist Church crew burned a Koran and an American flag at the same time. For once, most journalists elected to look the other way.
In the case of Jones and his church in Gainesville, the Council on American-Islamic Relations decided that the timing of his Koran travesty was simply too hot to ignore. Even though the group regularly ignores the videos that it receives of people burning, shooting or ripping apart Islam's holy book, CAIR decided to issue a July 19 press release announcing its own protest of "International Burn a Koran Day." The group handed out free copies of the Koran.
The word was officially out and the media storm kept growing as angry reactions -- from Arab streets to the White House -- rolled into the world's newsrooms.
Lost in the din were the quiet, measured words of many religious leaders who tried to walk a knife's edge of logic in their public statements.
For starters, they had to note the painful fact that the Dove World Outreach Center was an independent Pentecostal congregation and its members were responsible to no higher religious authority than their own pastor. Thus, there was no one who could stop this event, other than public officials who, in order to do so, would have had to trample the rights of Jones and his flock.
The bottom line: Blasphemy is not illegal in the United States of America.
As the clock ticked down, Land stressed that the "only thing more dangerous than what this pastor is doing would be to allow the government to interfere. This would set a terrible precedent and would diminish all our First Amendment rights. The best way to combat this is to exercise our free speech right to condemn what he is doing in the simplest way and most direct terms."