Afghan mob kills at least 12 UN workers in protest over Terry Jones's Koran-burning

“Wait,” you say, “since when did Terry Jones burn a Koran?” Turns out he did it 12 days ago after some sort of kangaroo court/mock trial. I didn’t know about it until today; apparently, after being savaged last fall for condemning Jones’s provocation while devoting saturation coverage to it, most of the national media wisely decided to ignore him this time. Most, but not all: Someone must have picked up the story because, by last Thursday, our “friend” Hamid Karzai had formally denounced Jones’s act. Then, a week later, our “friends” in the Pakistani government denounced it too, replete with an open letter to the head of Interpol asking him to arrest Jones for the “violent crime” he supposedly committed. In other words, faced with a choice between pleasing local fundamentalists by publicizing a provocation they were trying to demagogue and alienating the fundies by ignoring it in order to avert a violent backlash, our “allies” decided to cover their own asses by stirring the pot. And let’s face it: Given the consequences these days in AfPak for being seen as soft on blasphemy, that’s a perfectly rational decision. Someone’s going to die; better a UN worker than the presidents of Afghanistan or Pakistan, right?

And yet, and yet, until today, there’d been no major violence anywhere reacting to Jones’s stunt, despite the fact that it happened almost two weeks ago. Even with Karzai and Zardari giving it a PR boost, Egyptians were focused on Mubarak’s crimes; Tunisians were busy with Islamists screeching about women wearing headscarves in state ID photos; Syrians were risking death urging the beady-eyed brute in charge to resign already; and Libyans were battling Qaddafi to see who’d control Ras Lanuf and Misurata for the next few hours before handing it over once again. With no movement on the “insane overreaction to blasphemy” front, Afghan clerics realized it’d take another push to get things going. And since today is mosque day, which guarantees huge crowds, they decided this was the moment to push:

Friday’s incident began when three mullahs, addressing worshippers at Friday prayers inside the Blue Mosque here, one of Afghanistan’s holiest places, urged people to take to the streets to agitate for the arrest of Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who oversaw the burning of a Koran on March 20. Otherwise, said the most prominent of them, Mullah Mohammed Shah Adeli, Afghanistan should cut off relations with the United States. “Burning the Koran is an insult to Islam and those who committed it should be punished,” he said.

The crowd — some carrying signs reading “Down with America” and “Death to Obama” — poured into the streets and swelled — the governor of Balkh Province, Atta Mohammad Noor, later put the number at 20,000…

The mob also burned down part of the United Nations compound, toppled guard towers and heaved blocks of cement down from the walls. The victims were killed by weapons that the demonstrators had wrestled away from the United Nations guards, according to Mr. Noor…

A prominent Afghan cleric, Mullah Qyamudin Kashaf, acting head of the Ulema Council of Afghanistan (and a Karzai appointee), also called for American authorities to arrest and try Mr. Jones for the Koran burning.

The Ulema Council recently met to discuss the Koran burning, he said in a telephone interview. “We expressed our deep concerns about this act and we were expecting the violence that we are witnessing now,” Mullah Kashaf said. “Unless they try him and give him the highest possible punishment, we will witness violence and protests not only in Afghanistan but in the entire world.”

How desperately did they want to see some rage today? CBS quotes a witness who says clerics were driving around the town yesterday with loudspeakers urging people to turn out for a “peaceful protest.” Fast-forward to today and the provincial governor, trying his best to spin this as some sort of organized Taliban or jihadi assault, was left trying to argue that the attack had been carried out by insurgents using the crowd as cover. That doesn’t square with the account quoted above, though, especially the part about an enormous throng overrunning the perimeter and seizing the guards’ guns. Insurgents surely would have brought their own weapons. Up to 20 people may have been killed in the attack at last count; early reports stated that two were beheaded but that’s in dispute at the moment. Ironically none of the victims were Americans, as the Times claims that protesters settled on the UN compound only when they couldn’t find any of ours to tear apart.

And so now we move to the inevitable next phase whenever there’s some cycle of revenge in the Muslim world in response to western speech, a la the Mohammed cartoons. Among the public, lots of second thoughts about staying put in Afghanistan, wondering how you build a nation on a foundation that’s capable of this. Among the administration, lots of angst about how to politically navigate the fallout, with free speech rights, AfPak diplomacy, and the outcome of the “Arab Spring” all in the mix. And for the media, lots of effort to hold Terry Jones morally responsible for the dead UN workers even though the only thing he burned was a book. An exit question for them via the Daily Caller’s Mike Riggs: “What are you willing to stop doing to avoid offending violent religious zealots?”