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.
Terry Jones is a pathetic, publicity-seeking buffoon. But, as a citizen of the United States, if he wishes to burn a Koran (or Bible or Torah or Bhagavad Gita) that is his prerogative. We may not like it. We may find it offensive, sensationalistic, insensitive, etc., etc. And we may say so publicly. But when U.S. lawmakers, speaking in their capacity as lawmakers, threaten to launch an “investigation,” hold Jones “accountable,” and contemplate clamping down on free speech because (quoth L. Graham) “we’re in a war,” something has gone badly awry.
Ponder, just for starters, Senator Graham’s caviler demotion of free speech: it’s a “great idea,” he said, but should be limited (he implies) because “we’re in war.” Loose lips can indeed sink ships and few would dispute that during war time certain speech must be limited. But what Terry Jones did had nothing to do with military or governmental secrets. He was not publicizing troop movements or detailing America’s methods of catching up with its enemies. For that sort of treasonous behavior you have to go to such organs of enlightenment as The New York Times, which in 2006 blithely published secret details of how the National Security Agency was gathering intelligence.
No, what we see in the Terry Jones case is the latest outbreak of preemptive capitulation in the face of Muslim incitement. When Yale University Press declined, at the last minute, to include images of the Danish caricatures of Mohammed in a book it was publishing about the caricatures, it was engaging in preemptive capitulation (and possibly a little Middle Eastern fund raising). As I said at the time, I think the British journalist Charles Moore had the right idea: in the face of intimidation, you should face it down. When the Danish cartoon episode erupted, most newspapers refused to carry images of the offending cartoons, lest the jihad that was over there should suddenly be transported over here. But Mr. Moore had a better idea: every paper ought to have published them. Moral: Don’t give in to bullies.
Bottom-line question: What are we willing to give up in order to appease a bunch of murderous thugs who approach the world with a pocket full of Semtex and say, “Do — and don’t do — what I want or I will blow myself and you to smithereens”? There’s the Lindsey Graham-Joe Klein-Yale UP-and (I very mush regret to say) David Petraeus answer: “OK. You tell us no cartoons of Mohammed: we won’t draw or publish any. You say, no burning of the Koran, we will prohibit that, too.” The problem is, as I noted about another incident of Muslim insanity some years ago,
the list of the things Muslims are offended by would take over a culture. They don’t like ice-cream that (used to be) distributed by Burger King because a decoration on the lid looked like (sort of) the Arabic script for “Allah.” They are offended by “pig-related items, including toys, porcelain figures, calendars and even a tissue box featuring Winnie the Pooh and Piglet” appearing in the workplace. They take umbrage at describing Islamic terrorism as, well, Islamic terrorism and have managed to persuade Gordon Brown to rename it “anti-Islamic activity.” But here’s the thing: one of the features of living in a modern, secular democracy is that there is always plenty of offense to go around. No Muslim is more offended by cartoons of their Prophet than I am by their barbaric reaction to the cartoons. But their reaction when offended is to torch an embassy, shoot a nun , or knife a filmmaker. I write a column deploring such behavior. You see the difference.
As I said above, Terry Jones is a pathetic buffoon. But what we should be alarmed about is not his stunt but the alacrity with which our leaders and commentators rush to curtail free speech because they fear the reprisals of barbarous people addicted to violence and intoxicated by a repulsive, freedom-hating ideology. The spoiled child says, “If you don’t do what I want, I’ll hold my breath till I faint.” The overgrown spoiled children of Islam require the same sort of medicine, though age adjusted, that little Johnny does.