Years ago, I picked up a tattered but serviceable edition of the great Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Published in 1910, the twenty-eight-volume monument to human curiosity about the “arts, sciences, literature and general information” is a testament to scholarly industry. Compared to the mealy-mouthed reference works that clutter library shelves today, which typically compete to outdo one another in the exhibition of moral relativism, the Eleventh Edition (the common shorthand by which the work is known) is also a testament to a neglected virtue: robust cultural confidence. For a Westerner, it is refreshing to dip into its unembarrassed pages and savor its masculine prose. Volume I, for example (“A” to “Androphagi”), contains a most illuminating article about that once-far-away mountain fastness, Afghanistan. After a few pages about the history, climate, and geography of this Asiatic byway, the writer introduces us to the people, “handsome and athletic” but treacherous.
The Afghans, inured to bloodshed from childhood, are familiar with death, and audacious in attack, but easily discouraged by failure; excessively turbulent and unsubmissive to law or discipline; apparently frank and affable in manner, especially when they hope to gain some object, but capable of the grossest brutality when that hope ceases. They are unscrupulous in perjury, treacherous, vain and insatiable, passionate in vindictiveness, which they will satisfy at the cost of their own lives and in the most cruel manner.
That’s in 1910. Does any of that need to be emended?
I have been thinking about Afghanistan again because of the riots that broke out this weekend. So far about a dozen people, including U.N. and NATO personnel, have been killed and scores injured. Why? Because Terry Jones, the Florida “pastor” who made headlines last September when he threatened to burn copies of the Koran, finally made good on his promise on March 20th, when he presided over a “trial” and burning of the Koran.
The incident went largely unreported here, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai got wind of the stunt and denounced it. Officials in neighboring Pakistan denounced it, too, sending a letter to the head of Interpol demanding that Jones be arrested for his “violent crime.” Then the natives got restless and started smashing up whatever there is to smash up in Afghanistan, which turns out to be mostly other human beings, buildings and other emblems of modern civilization being in short supply in that wretched country.
Well, once the rampage started, Westerners were quick to comment. From Tweedledee to Tweedledum — from Harry Reid (D. Nev.) to Lindsey Graham (R., sort of, SC.) — American lawmakers fell over themselves to condemn Jones and insist that his pyromanic exhibitions be “investigated.” “I wish we could find a way to hold people accountable,” said Graham. “Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war.”
The journalist Joe Klein, writing in Time (yes, it’s still publishing), wants to hold Terry Jones “accountable,” too, big time. “Jones’s act was murderous as any suicide bomber’s,” Klein wrote, “If there is a hell, he’s just guaranteed himself an afterlifetime membership.”
And then there is General David Petraeus, who, together with NATO Ambassador Mark Sedwill, condemned Jones’s bonfire of the vanities — “hateful, intolerant, extremely disrespectful” — and “any disrespect to the Holy Quran and the Muslim faith.”
What’s wrong with this picture? Let me count the ways.
First, let’s look at the imputation of causal glue that links the events: A. “Terry Jones presides over ‘trial’ and burning of Koran” and B. “Muslim Afghans go on murderous rampage.” The press reports typically tell us that Jones’s action “sparked” or “led to” the rampages, suggesting, without quite asserting, a causal link between “A” and “B.” But think about it. Some Danish cartoonists draw some caricatures of Mohammed. Months later, Muslims riot, torch Danish embassies, and murder several score of innocent people. Did the cartoons “lead to” or “spark” the murderous rampages? In other words, was there a sufficient moral connection between the activity of the cartoonists and the actions of the homicidal Muslims to blame the cartoonists?
Go back a few years. Osama bin Laden didn’t like it that there was an American presence in Saudi Arabia. On September 11, 2001, nineteen Muslim fanatics working for bin Laden destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, and killed some 3000 innocent people. Wahhabi Muslims thought it provocative, outrageous, and intolerable that the United States was in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Muslim world. It was our presence there that sparked, led to, etc. 9/11. Were we therefore responsible for 9/11? Some thought so.
I believe, on the contrary, that the responsibility for 9/11 lies with those who planned and carried it out. As Jonathan Rauch memorably put it in the aftermath of 9/11, the root cause of terrorism is terrorists.