One good thing about living in Europe is that you dont feel obliged to watch the CBS, NBC, or ABC evening news. But here in Norway, we do get the CBS and NBC broadcasts, one live and the other an hour later, and you can watch them if youre willing to stay up late enoughgiven the time difference, theyre both on after midnight. Last Wednesday, I happened to catch both. It didnt take long for my jaw to drop.
To my astonishment, both broadcasts lead story was the plan by Terry Jones, who until recently was a deservedly obscure preacher in Gainesville, Florida, to burn copies of the Koran on September 11. The tone of the reports was grave: how would the Muslim world respond to this unspeakable act? The news had already caused significant unrest in Muslim cities. Fearing the worst, American officials, from the White House on down, had condemned Joness plan and called on him to change his mind. Among those whod weighed in publicly were Hillary Clinton and presidential advisor David Axelrod. Even the Vatican had issued a condemnation. On camera, General David Petraeus warned darkly that if Jones burned the Koran, the lives of GIs would be endangered.
The network reporters speculated about whether anything could be done to stop Jones. Both CBS and NBC interviewed Gainesville officials, who insisted that local ordinances forbade book-burning and promised that if Jones carried out his plan, there would be consequences. But it was also noted that the First Amendment made it difficult to punish the preacher, though the planned burning plainly constituted a terrible provocation. Implicit on both CBS and NBC was that Jones was inviting major international calamity and that it was unfortunate that nothing could be done to stop him.
As if all this werent enough, President Obama himself weighed in on Thursday morning. If hes listening, Obama told Good Morning America, I hope he understands that what hes proposing to do is completely contrary to our values as Americans. Obama reminded Jones that America was built on the notion of freedom and religious tolerance and that this stunt . . . could greatly endanger our young men and women who are in uniform. The president expressed his hope that Jones would listen to his better angels and call off his destructive act.
Its clear, of course, that Joneswho at the last minute canceled the bonfire, declaring that God is telling us to stopis a nut. Hes apparently made a career of spewing hate at Jews, gays, and just about everybody else who doesnt belong to his tiny church, which seems to be some kind of wacky cult.
But thats neither here nor there. The real story here isnt about Jones but about the rest of us and what weve allowed to happen to our civilization since 9/11. Who would have imagined, on the day the Twin Towers fell, that nine years later wed be so scared of Muslim reactions that the plan of some crank to burn a few copies of the Koran would become the lead story on the evening news and cause the president himself to plead with the guy to call it off? Imagine a modern-day Rip Van Winkle whod fallen asleep before 9/11 and awakened to all this nonsense. For such a person, the degree of attention accorded to Jones would have been nothing less than incomprehensible. What in Gods name, Rip would ask, had happened to America? How could we have become so timid, so terrified, so quickly? How could an American president, in the middle of war and economic crisis, give so much as a moments notice to such a piddling non-story?
Needless to say, the truly important things went unsaid on those network news reports. Nobody pointed out that we wouldnt be fretting like this if there werent something very special about Islam. You could announce plans to burn a stack of Bibles, or the Bhagavad-Gita, or the Dhammapada, or the Book of Mormon, or Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, or a truckload of copies of The Watchtower, or any other non-Muslim religious text without making the White House and Pentagon call emergency meetings and put embassies around the world on alert. How little time its taken for us to get used to paying Islam a unique degree of respect!
One of the network news reportsI dont remember whichshowed an anti-American demonstration by Muslims in Kabul reacting to Joness planned Koran-burning. The demonstrators were burning an American flag and stomping on it. Neither the reporter nor the anchorperson commented on this fact. Plainly, in their view, the burning of an American flag was not worth remarking upon. After all, in recent years Muslims around the world have burned countless American flags, not to mention the flags of pretty much every other Western democracy. Since 9/11, weve grown used to seeing the revered symbols of Western democratic values routinely desecrated in the Muslim world.
And weve also grown used to the fact this is most assuredly not a two-way street. American flags can be burned by the hundreds, by huge crowds, in the major squares of Muslim capitals, and thats apparently hunky-dory with us. But when a guy in Gainesville whom nobody ever heard of decides to burn a few Korans, everybody from the president on down begs him to reconsider. Obama to the contrary, this isnt about our values as Americans; its not about freedom and religious tolerance. Its about fear. Nine years after jihadists murdered 2,977 people on American soil, the sight of American leaders quaking in their boots at the thought of some clowns offending the Muslim world is nothing less than obscene.