Everyone is trying to outdo one another in righteous condemnation of the Reverend Terry Jones and his micro-flock, to assure the world that 50 people out of 300 million does not a majority make. That is altogether fine and good, and yet we all know the asymmetry involved — whether it is a scholarly remark made by a pope and the Muslim riots in response, or the policies of many Arab countries forbidding open worship by other religions and, in some cases, the presence of non-Muslims in entire cities.
But all that said, our political and military leaders — whether a general, a secretary of defense, or a president — are making a grave mistake by commenting directly on this pathetic figure. If a gesture is needed by our leaders, a simple “The United States ensures freedom of speech, even disturbing expressions of it, and has always paid the subsequent price for ill-manners” would have been enough.
We are at war with radical Islam, from the battlefield in Afghanistan to stealthy terrorists here at home, and we are struggling to win the hearts and minds of Muslim populations in general. But we can’t offer 24/7 exegeses of 300 million Americans’ free speech. No such we-must-be-perfect-to-be-good burden was thought to accompany past wars, even though zealots at home often misinterpreted our efforts against Japanese militarism, German Nazism, or Communism, and despite the fact that our silence sometimes aided and abetted our enemies, both directly and indirectly.
We are reaching the point where the damage done to America’s image by 50 book-burners is outweighed by the damage done by hypersensitivity on the part of the United States government, which hopes to assuage the hurt feelings of those abroad who equate that tiny number with our culture at large — often in an abjectly hypocritical fashion. We know where this leads — to endless efforts to micromanage all elements of American life to protect the sensitivities of those who, by act and deed, are far more intolerant of different religions and cultures.
Already we’ve seen the omnipresent Imam Rauf suggest that, if he were not to get his selfish way, then nebulous, omnipotent radical forces abroad would be upset, and consequences for our troops would follow. His time would be far better spent either lecturing Saudi financiers to stop funding hate-filled madrassas and mosques or, even better, galvanizing world opinion over the carnage in Chechnya, where Russians used a level of violence against Muslims in Grozny that we have not seen since Mr. Assad leveled Hama.
If our leaders don’t relax, cool it, and stop these weird presidential “teachable moments” and all this stooping to editorialize about local irrelevancies (cf. the beer summit, the Tony Robbins–like escapades of the ubiqutious Imam Rauf, the line about Arizona law enforcement supposedly deporting the innocent “out to get ice cream,” etc.), we will devolve to the level of psychodrama. Indeed, this brilliantly entrepreneurial book-burning pastor has taken our government down to that level as it is. What’s next? Heaven forbid a gang-banger in East L.A. and his 50-person tribe should start sporting anti-Islamic insignia on their chests. Or Mr. Rushdie should quite rudely publish a sequel to The Satanic Verses. Two more inappropriate Danish cartoons? Is the Cabinet going to start devoting 3-4 hours a week to apologetic commentary directed at the Islamic world for the rude and uncouth among us?
Radical Islamists surely hope so.