In the United States, short of causing arson, you can burn a book, just as you can America's most sacred symbol, the U.S. flag. It's Constitutionally guaranteed. Free speech.Good lord. There's an immense difference between burning your own book as a way of saying "I hate this book" — which adds more expression to the marketplace of ideas — and the confiscation and destruction of other people's books — which is about depriving people of access to expression that they want to consume.
The moral question here is, how do we handle our freedom, which permits us appalling, anti-social acts?
As an American who deeply believes in free speech, I regard burning a book as a nearly unspeakably terrible thing. It is an assault on knowledge, and the societal value of allowing people to read and decide for themselves whether what they read has meaning to them. Torch a book and you at least symbolically deny your fellow men and women that freedom.
What's more, you replicate images of a political brutality--book burnings in Germany in the 1930s--that will haunt our planet for generations to come.
It's offensive to say "I hate this book" about a book that some people revere, but that's the point. It's a vigorous, vicious expression. Burning your own copy of a book is the same thing. Unless you possess the only copy of the book — or, perhaps, an artistically or historically distinctive copy — the burning is just a way of being showily expressive and getting a big audience. It's absurd that any clown who wants attention can light a tiny fire and become world famous. Get a grip, people.
I find it hard to believe that Niebuhr and hyperventilators like him are big readers of important books, because their minds seem pretty feeble to me. "Torch a book and you at least symbolically deny your fellow men and women that freedom." At least symbolically. Or, to put it another way, i.e., truthfully: You don't deny other people anything. You give them something: the information that is your hatred of a book. And as they "decide for themselves whether what they read has meaning," they can take into account that you hate the book. It's not going to be a very influential piece of information, because you're just some attention whore who burned a book instead of articulating a pithy critique of it.
Yes, conceivably, a private group burning its own books might be intimidating, but that would only be because we have other, much greater reasons to fear that group or the movement it represents. And yes, when you burn a book, you adopt an image associated with the Nazis, but that marginalizes you. We don't cower every time some marginal idiot draws a swastika or does the Hitler salute. You're free to express yourself, but I think lavishing outrage on some nobody empowers him. Why not ignore what is worthless? It's a marketplace of ideas. Why are you even browsing the crap?
UPDATE: Pastor Terry Jones has announced that he won't be burning the Koran after all.