Opinion: Burning books

Opinion: Burning books

Recently there's been a few cases of publicized Koran burnings - starting with an American pastor who threatened to burn the Koran, and ending with a couple of cases in France and the UK in which police started an investigation into YouTube videos.

A famous line by Heinrich Heine is often quoted in this context: "Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also." The 'proof' being the Nazis, who burned books, and then burned people.

The problem with this logic is that the Nazis did not burn books in order to burn books. They burned books in order to censor ideas and opinions.

Book burning has a long history. When books were hand-written scrolls, burning even a small quantity of books meant destroying years of effort, and in many cases removing the authors and their ideas from history. And that, of course, was the point.

In today's world, we have a lot of censorship, but in most of the recent cases, it was done via threats and intimidation by individuals and terrorist groups. A few riots later, and we don't even need the threats, we now have self-censorship.

Two recent examples from Norway: In one case a publisher decided to cancel a biography about Mohammed. The book will never see the light of day. In another case, the owners of a newspaper decided to shred all the copies of a certain edition, because they feared a cartoon in it will lead Muslims to riot. Again, this newspaper, and the ideas it embodied, did not see the light of day.

Burning any book is disgusting, and it's bad for the environment too. But unless this book burning is massively organized to remove every copy of a certain book off the shelf, I also think it's ridiculous to say that it actually means anything today. Certainly not more than thumbing your nose at somebody.

Preventing a book from being published? That means saying goodbye to freedom of speech.

By focusing on the act (burning) instead of the implications (censorship), we get to a situation where an insulting act by one person becomes a story for the world media. The media cares more about a pastor nobody heard about who wants to burn a book, and does not care at all that freedom of speech in Norway is eroding away.

So maybe the 21st century equivalent of Heinrich Heine's famous statement should be "where they shred newspapers, they will ultimately shred people".