A partial list of people who’ve weighed in thus far on Terry Jones’s publicity stunt turned mega-clusterfark: The U.S. Secretary of State, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, the presidents of Afghanistan and Indonesia, the prime minister of Iraq, the home minister of India, the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., the FBI, Interpol, the Vatican — and now, inevitably, the president of the United States. What this is, basically, is a global hostage situation, and while Obama (and Petraeus, and Romney) is making a shrewd rhetorical move by framing this as a plea to protect the troops, the danger obviously goes far beyond that. You’re not seeing Indian ministers opine here because they care about U.S. soldiers, and needless to say, if there’s anyone in the world who’s capable of handling himself against a threat, it’s an American G.I. with a M-16. The real worry is that unarmed civilians are going to die somewhere — in Afghanistan or Europe or Indonesia or Africa or, heaven forbid, here at home — because there are now enough Muslim fundamentalists spread around the world that realistically no one is safe. The “do it for the troops” gambit is essentially just a clever smokescreen aimed at appealing to Jones’s sense of patriotism. And it might work: He told USA Today earlier that a direct request from Obama to stand down would “cause us definitely to think it over.” Well, here’s the official request, which might be followed by a phone call from The One himself to Jones. (How’s that for creating a perverse PR incentive?) Frankly, at this point, Jones might as well drop the idea and declare “victory.” If he’s trying to make a point about “the dangers of radical Islam,” he can just point to the list of hand-wringing statesmen above and declare that the point has already been made. No need to actually strike a match.
I’m not going to rehash my objection to criticizing free speech on grounds that it poses a risk to soldiers, so let me make a few other points instead. First, to Robert Gibbs: No, burning the Koran doesn’t go against “every one of our values.” Book-burning is a repulsive means of protest but it’s as much a First Amendment matter as flag-burning is. Breathe into a paper bag, Gibbsy. Second, to Obama (and Petraeus and Romney): No, burning the Koran does not “endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan.” The reaction to burning the Koran is what endangers our men and women in uniform (and everyone else). This is a crucial point, worth always bearing in mind when speech is met with violence. When you blame a speaker for the violent response to his speech, you absolve the violent actor of the moral choice he made in deciding to act. If you think it’s Jones, rather than some Taliban suicide bomber, who’s a mortal threat to the troops, then presumably you also think Theo Van Gogh got what was coming to him. After all, he knew the risk when he made “Submission,” right?
Third, as tempting as it is to blame the media for giving this crank a megaphone, I’m uncomfortable with doing so. Make no mistake, their behavior’s been typically loathsome. Clearly, they pursued this story in the wake of the Ground Zero mosque kerfuffle in order to buttress their pre-midterm “Islamophobia” narrative — but something went wrong on the way to page one. By calling attention to it, they brought it to the attention of fundies, and now suddenly the worldwide fretting about imminent violence makes the “Islamophobes” look a bit less crazy than before. So now, as Tom Maguire says, they’re trying to climb off the tiger: The AP announced today that it won’t distribute photos or audio of the Koran-burning (if it happens) while Fox News insists that it won’t cover the event at all. This is their way, however belatedly, of denying jihadis easy propaganda from the event. So why, given all that, is it wrong to blame the media? Well, for one thing, doing so would make the same mistake about moral choices that I warned of above. If Jake Tapper covers the Koran-burning and some jihadi filthbag sees the footage and blows someone’s head off in Islamabad, it ain’t Jake Tapper who pulled the trigger. Filthbags have moral agency just like everyone else. The deeper reason, though, is that blaming the media can only encourage them to censor themselves in the future for fear of offending Muslims. American newspapers have already largely suppressed the Mohammed cartoons, and Comedy Central has taken to bleeping Mohammed’s name on “South Park.” And now, already, we have Fox out-and-out refusing to cover news events lest some excitable fundie crank go berserk. Where do we draw that line?