The Fire This Time (UPDATED)

It’s a shame that Pastor Terry Jones is not more articulate. His statements and interviews show that he is incapable of clearly expressing the Constitutional support for his famous or infamous burning of the Koran — an act, however distasteful, protected by the First Amendment — or of establishing a strong cultural argument. He might have expounded, for example, on Andres Serrano’s provocative photograph Piss Christ which caused some controversy for a time, but led to nothing more serious than a few attempts at vandalism and failed restraining orders. No one died or was hurt.

For that matter, one has yet to see a tribe of Orthodox Jewish communicants going on a killing spree because someone mutilated a Torah scroll, which happens often enough. Jones might thus have argued that a rampage of murder and mayhem in the Muslim world over the desecration of a religious text would have amounted to nothing more in the West in a comparable situation than a cultural flare-up and a lot of sanctimonious punditry, assuming it were even noticed. Instead, the height of his rhetoric is to say he “thinks” that the grisly events in Afghanistan prove “there is a radical element in Islam.” As the Simpsonism goes, “Doh!”

It’s a shame that major judicial and political figures in the West are not more insightful and courageous. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer cheerfully scants the Constitution when he suggests that burning a Koran may not be protected by the First Amendment — although it would appear that those who burn the American flag are within their rights. General David Petraeus releases a statement apologizing for “the action of an individual in the United States who recently burned a Holy Koran,” but has nothing to say about a rioting Muslim mob taking offense at a legal act carried out in another country and massacring more than 20 people, including 7 UN workers. After all, for the good general, these are “perhaps understandable passions.”

It’s a shame that the Afghan-Canadian governor of Kandahar can only condemn an “abhorrent move” by “a stupid pastor” and that Senator Harry Reid blames Jones for triggering a blood-tumult and in so doing effectively condones the berserkers who actually committed the murders. Similarly, Senator Lindsey Graham deplores Jones’ auto-da-fé for “put[ting] our soldiers at risk,” but what puts our troops at risk is not book burning but people who behave like inflammable tinder and who are never very far away from killing and maiming. Jones’ act was beyond the pale, the grotesque gesture of a small-time Savonarola. There were other ways in which he could have conveyed an entirely legitimate point. But he is not a killer. “You see the difference,” remarks Roger Kimball.

It is as if we are to take responsibility for the congenitally incitable; they themselves are not accountable for their feral impulses, which we consequently regard as perfectly comprehensible and even acceptable. We consider them as a pack of feckless unionists or as a special interest group composed of the disabled. They are somehow in their rights. But what is really at work in our tolerance of such homicidal rage is an incongruous mix of self-contempt and cultural condescension. As Victor Davis Hanson writes, “a nut burning a bible is either artistic expression or a proper antidote to centuries of oppression and so to be either applauded or ignored; but a nut burning a Koran evokes decapitations and murder and does so quite understandably.” The fact is: the madness is theirs, but the ignominy is ours.