Everyone has made the apt analogy of Rev. Terry Jones’ plan to barbecue a Koran to the Piss Christ episode a few years back, and it is instructive. In that 1987 episode of religious history in American life, artist (using the term loosely) Andres Serrano took a crucifix, put it in a jar of urine, and took a picture of it. That was his art. It was offensive for the obvious reason of depicting an image holy to Christians in such a way, and doubly offensive because it won an award that was in part funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA was already a controversial use of taxpayer dollars; in Serrano’s case, it became a very literal metaphor for how many Americans saw the whole program’s use of their hard-earned money.
But the case of the Rev. Jones and the Koran is a little different. His piece of performance art isn’t taxpayer funded, for one thing. And unlike Piss Christ, Jones’ work actually has sparked riots clear on the other side of the world, even though it hasn’t happened yet. Unlike the Koran he’s threatened but not yet burned, Jones’ effigy has in fact been burned on the streets of Kabul, along with the American flag. Anyone waiting for the militant Methodists to go wild and burn effigies over Serrano’s art has been waiting now for 23 years after the fact. That’s one slow moving riot.
But here’s the question: How did the rioters of Kabul find out about Jones’s Koran stunt in the first place? Terry Jones isn’t exactly Rick Warren, megachurch pastor and international celebrity. The Rev. Jones pastors a congregation so small it might qualify as a microchurch. His entire flock wouldn’t even fill up one of Warren’s Sunday school classes. He’s not influential outside probably ten blocks around his church, isn’t on the bestseller list, doesn’t have anything infamous in his past that we know of yet, and he’s not one of those pastors that other pastors cite in their sermons. So how did this guy become internationally infamous in the span of a few weeks?
Well, blame the media first, and the Obama administration second. A photo appearing in the New York Times today ought to be the photo of the year. It shows the formerly obscure Rev. Jones, who has yet to actually carry out any part of his Koran burning, surrounded by a press gaggle that probably dwarfs his church. He showed up on the Today show this morning, he’s been reportedly trying to make a sort of hostage trade over the proposed Ground Zero mosque, and his words and image go global instantly. Not bad for a guy who pastors all of 50 people. Too bad innocent people may get killed in all this.
Blame Rick Sanchez of CNN. If the Times has the chronology right, it was Rick Sanchez who first plucked Jones from the local scene and gave him national press. That appearance spawned more coverage, and eventually Gen. David Petraeus felt compelled to weigh in, and now President Obama has too. For what it’s worth, Petraeus’ comments were the first I’d heard of the story, and I wondered why on earth he was talking about some preacher burning a book.
We seem to be looking, then, at a case of a story that didn’t need to be a story at all, until the media turned it into one and the American government itself made it a bigger one. There’s probably someone somewhere in the world burning a Koran for one reason or another every day. If they don’t post it on YouTube it didn’t happen, though, and if the media doesn’t pick up on it, rioters don’t take to the streets of Kabul. No media coverage, no administration weighing in, no riots.
Jones may be obscure, but he’s evidently not stupid. While the Andres Serrano comparison remains apt, all this brings another figure to my mind: P.T. Barnum. The famed showman and circus founder knew how to manipulate his fellow man, and Jones, with his Mark Twain mutton chops and his constant story changes, seems cut from the same cloth. “Every crowd has a silver lining,” said Barnum, and Jones has definitely figured out how to draw a crowd. Oh, don’t get me wrong here, his Koran burning is crankery of the first order (so was Serrano’s pictorial), but it’s crankery that either intentionally or accidentally is creating a teaching moment for the world. And here’s the lesson: Man threatens to burn Koran, sparks riots and gets his country’s flag and his own effigy burned, and has the world waiting on his every word.
Notice I didn’t say “Man burns Koran.” The mere threat is enough, because the possibility of riots and destruction in response is all too real. The Islamists know a thing or two about crowds, too. They also know a few things about the man in the White House.
Unfortunately, the lesson is evidently lost on President Obama. During today’s press conference, he insisted once again that we must close the terrorist detainment facility at Gitmo because terrorists use it as an excuse to attack America. It’s worth pointing out a couple of things in response to this. First, the terrorists actually attacked us more often, and to greater effect, long before Gitmo ever existed. Killing thousands of terrorists and capturing their main planner, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, has dented their ability to hit us. KSM has spent the past few years at Gitmo, by the way.
And second, is it really worth trying to change serious national security policy to appease anyone who’ll riot and burn you in effigy for just threatening to burn a book?
UPDATE: The media catches on to Jones’ game. Which means they’re still a step ahead of Obama.