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Preacher's destructive campaign shines a light on freedom of speech

In a week dominated by the Gainesville, Fla., preacher Terry Jones, and whether he would or would not burn the Koran on America's sacred day of remembrance for the 9/11 terrorism victims, I gave a speech to a group of senior judges in Brantford, Ont.

I didn't mention Reverend Jones of the Dove World Outreach Center - I was too busy rhyming off the sins of the still-inaccessible Canadian justice system - but on thinking about it now, I wish I had.

Rev. Jones could happen only in America, and for all that this is a blessing, whatever your religion, that's because in no other country in the world do regular people so value freedom of expression and freedom of speech.

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To Americans, these aren't statements of principle reserved for learned discussion among their elites or academics, but rather dearly held core beliefs, felt viscerally and personally.

It's why, or at least partly why, in the United States, ordinary people are so much more willing to talk to reporters, and why their institutions such as the courts and schools are much more open than their counterparts in Canada.

Rev. Jones's inarguably destructive campaign, which began in July with his announcement of what he called "International Burn a Koran Day," and which gained momentum thereafter, wouldn't have lasted a New York minute in this country.

I am trying to imagine what would have happened if the Canadian equivalent of Rev. Jones, from a tiny, obscure church that sounds as much like a cult, had made such an announcement.

But as sure as I am that there are some off-the-wall Canuck preachers - as an agnostic, this is hardly my turf - I really can't manage to make the leap in my head, to conjure up one so brash and foolish as even to suggest such a thing. We are such constrained, if not constipated, people.

But had someone done so, how long do you figure before the complaints came pouring in, before the various human-rights commissions swooped down on him, before the police moved in with hate-crime charges or better yet, preventive detention?

Now, there were plenty of complaints about Rev. Jones in the United States too, and as his bizarre campaign gained ever more attention, there was a great rush of them - including from the people in Gainesville, who seem to have been as appalled by the preacher man as would have been the good burghers of any Canadian city.

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The Gainesville mayor called Rev. Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center (that must be some whacked out dove, buddy) "an embarrassment" and told the local newspaper, "This is not us," which is almost Canadian in tone. The National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 45,000 churches, condemned the plan and urged Rev. Jones to cancel.

Pretty soon, it was hard to keep track of the denunciations, with everyone from politicians to army generals in Afghanistan to U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper weighing in.

There were threats too, against Rev. Jones and the church. Appearing with a story in Friday's online Gainesville Sun was a picture of the preacher's son, Luke - wearing, in a stunning portrait of Americana, a gun on his right hip. He said his family had received more than 100 death threats and been told by the FBI they wouldn't ever again be safe.

The difference, as I see it, is that had there been a Canadian equivalent of Rev. Jones, the muscular threats likely would have come from the institutions of government and society - from those human-rights commissions, from the police who would have been under tremendous pressure to stop a Koran-burning, and perhaps even from the courts, by way of injunction.

Here, I'm informed by what the OPP and the Ontario government did to shut down critics (particularly activist Gary McHale) of how they collectively handled the native occupation in Caledonia, native issues being one of many Canadian sacred cows, right up there with the national desire to be seen as embracing of multiculturalism and viewed as more tolerant than Americans.

I understand that in parts of the Muslim world, where people are poor and illiterate and dependent upon imams for their information (Afghanistan and Pakistan, for instance), Terry Jones may be successfully portrayed as a typical American with typical hatred for Islam, and that whether or not he eventually burns a Koran, on Sept. 11 or another day, is almost irrelevant: He said he would, and that's good enough.

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But he's no such animal, and to others, of all religious stripes and of none, it's pretty clear Rev. Jones is a pariah, regarded as an exception and nutter, a characterization I'd not dispute.

Yet, if he abandons his crazed plan, it will be as a result of moral suasion, and not because he was charged criminally, or detained without charge, or browbeaten by human-rights avengers.

He is, in short, an absurd creation of the glorious freedoms that exist in America and, I'd argue, nowhere else.

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