The January 18, 2015, edition of the Washington Post has a front page story about Terry Jones, the part-time preacher of a small congregation in Florida (natch), made famous for his threats to burn Qur’ans (or as the Post chooses to transliterate it: Korans) and, according to reporter Anne Hull “No. 2 target on an Al-Qaeda hit list.“ (http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/koran-burning-preachers-pulpit-of-deance-and-chili-cheese-dogs/2015/01/17/c98a79e2-9d9e-11e4-a7ee-526210d665b4_story.html)
I wonder why.
Granted, newspapers have to work triply hard these days for a fraction of the revenue they once saw. They compete with 24-hour “news” show and [shudder] the Internet. Therefore, they come honestly by sensationalism, the paper fire with which they must fight the aforementioned electronic fires.
So when I saw Terry Jones picture on the front page of the Post, I thought he must be at it again, stirring up the flames of bigotry and taunting extremists to come and get us, so he can point out how horrible they are for reacting to his pointy stick. But no, it was that he is selling hotdogs in a failing mall in Florida. Not only is he working there, he owns it, although he doesn’t personally eat it.
If you want to make a point by burning Qur’ans…well, make clear what the point is. Not believing in another religion hardly justifies. Ms Hull reports Mr. Jones saying:
“Burning the Koran, that’s not radical….”
“I can understand if you don’t agree with so-called burning someone’s holy book. But I don’t know how you can agree with sharia. You don’t see Mennonites going around chopping people’s heads off.”
So, he burns Islamic holy books (Although he did not burn them the first time he announced it, he did do so in late summer, Ms Hull reports.) because Mennonites don’t chop people’s heads off: A reasoned argument.
Well, I am sure that burning their holy books will put a stop to that behavior, although it might bring some heat elsewhere.
If it is not clear already, let me disclose that I am a practicing Christian with many close friends who happen to be Muslim. In readimng the Qur’an, I was surprised at how much of it resembles elements of the Bible. If they are there, I missed the hate parts. So it is not surprising that my friends with whom I have enjoyed many an Iftar dinner to celebrate the end of the day’s fasting during Ramadan. I have visited their mosques with them (not during a service) and discussed their religion with them in their homes. I have felt a little unsure of what to do with myself when they excused themselves to pray.
I have heard stories about how rigorously they observe their fasts (one friend who had to add a day to Ramadan because he inadvertently swallowed a sip of water while swimming) and marveled at the trouble they go through when there are no facilities designed for them to wash before prayer.
Because of a previous job, I also spent a good bit of time in Muslim countries, and only one made me anxious because it seemed so bent on taking the harshest view of how to interpret the Qur’an. Even there, though I found many people, including government officials, who were delightful (and non-violent) company.
I should confess that I have not yet found any race, religion or nationality that I can condemn, which is ironic because as a columnist I was accused of prejudice against blacks, gays, Hispanics….practically every group one can name because I openly criticized specific actions or persons. (Although I haven’t published a regular opinion column in more than a dozen years, my grandchild in high school reports that people still ask her if she is related to the racist with the same name.
All that said, I don’t understand how any well-balanced individual or group of individuals can find attacking another individual or group of individuals who is not actively threatening them. I do understand that anyone can claim a cause to bring celebrity or notoriety upon himself. Just as a lost and lonely teenager in Los Angeles might join a gang to find “family,” a poor Muslim teen might join a terrorist group because it provides financial and emotional support. Islam is an incidental excuse for acting out against…anyone…for their own misery.
(I am trying so hard not to launch into a diatribe against the members of the Westboro Baptist Church who go out of their way to bring additional pain and grief to a funeral in the name of Christianity. You can read more about them on their website: www.godhatesfags.com. No much needs to be said after seeing their URL, but if you suffer from low blood pressure, you might take a gander at some of their sister sites including: GodHatesIslam.com, GodHatesTheMedia.com and GodHatesTheWorld.com. And now you know the real reason “Jesus wept.”)
I do get distracted.
Not to put too fine a point on it, I do not respect Mr. Jones’ point of view (or Westboro Baptist Church’s) and I wish they would just disappear, preferably into a fire pit, but I guess we will have to wait for that.
And that brings me to one of two points I hoped I eventually would get around to making:
Why would the Post choose to publish a front-page story of a hate-monger who is not in the news except for sensationalism?
I expect the Internet to try to steal my attention with misleading or exaggerating headlines, yet I still bit far too often and see that “Horrible Fate Awaits Bride” might turn out to be a story of a cake that had a bare spot in its frosting or a ring-bearer who dropped the ring. The Star and The Enquirer did something similar with great success for many years, although they did not seriously pretend to be legitimate news vehicles. I keep biting, but now I understand the contempt that people profess for “the media.”
When I was a kid, John Cameron Swayze was on, what, a half-hour, packed with news. Oh sure, I questioned whether his Timex really kept on ticking, but…. We waited for the news with JCS and listened to—and believed—every word. We trusted him and Walter Cronkite and even Edward R Murrow. (Oh, ask your grandparents.)
But then the world grew impatient, and now we demand immediate gratification, and two things happened:
- There was not enough news to fill 24 hours.
- There was too much news for our emotional well-being.
So now, instead of a half-hour of concise news about what is happening around the corner, around the nation and around the world, we get an hour of news repeated so often we can say it with them, or “news” anchors opining without any factual support, or worse, chatting with each other in such banalities that we would try to duck out if it were happening in our own living rooms. But ratings rule and there are more lonely people who will watch these personalities talk about nothing than real news junkies who watch only for the pedestrian purpose of learning what is new in the world.
Most unfortunate is that more people are getting their news from tainted or sensational sources than from legitimate news organs, but I hate to see newspapers, a business that supported me for many years (and for which I still hold deep affection) stooping to the same level.
I guess the bright spot is that the article makes it easier for Al-Qaeda to seek and destroy an embarrassing irritant. It does make an interesting side point that he has chosen to demonstrate his commitment to integrity in owning a Fry Guys, selling fried foods to the general public while, Hull observes, “there’s not much on his menu that he would eat. He prefers organic food,” she says (although I suppose one could fry organic food) “and he drinks mostly juice and water.”
And now the mall owner has suggested he might absent himself and his notoriety from the mall.
But this isn’t about haters. Haters, we know, will hate. Rather, it has taken me more than 1200 words to get to the point.
And the point is greater than the message of hate spread in the name of Islam—or Christianity—racial discrimination—or whatever. It is about what seems to be the overarching principle in American life today. Maybe bigger than junk food or football or hypocrisy or outspoken ignorance because it is our Founding Fathers given right to say whatever we want, regardless of whether it is informed by fact or fueled by the inaccuracy of group-think.
If it isn’t against the law, it’s okay.
In Jones’ words, as reported by Ms Hull, “When people can burn the American flag and the court says they have the freedom of expression to do it, then we have the right to burn their Koran[sic].”
Two points here: The first point is that it appears to me that although it is legal to burn the American flag as a First amendment right, Mr. Jones appears to think that it is morally wrong to do so. He then makes my second point, which is that two wrongs seem to make a right. If it is not illegal to burn Qur’ans then let’s do it.
He makes, I think, a similar point when talking about his first threatened Qur’an burning, and this backwater beacon of intolerance leading his small band of followers into an act of hate to symbolize their Christian beliefs mentions receiving calls from both Robert Gates, then the secretary of defense, and David Petraeus, then arguably the best-known and best-respected general officer in the United States. They warned that he was endangering the lives of American military personnel. Their warnings appear accurate in that when his publicity had dwindled four years later, he did burn a Qur’an, resulting protests are believed to have claimed 20 U.S. and U.N. Lives. Ms Hull reports that he was later arrested hauling a load of kerosene-soaked Qur’ans.
Despite his restraint after calls from Secretary Gates and General Petraeus, Ms Hull quotes Mr. Jones as saying what he remembers about the calls is that “They never once told me. ‘Don’t do it because it’s not true.”
And here we take a breath and reflect. Notice that Mr. Jones thinking is especially negative here in that he is using something that was not said as evidence that his argument is correct. I submit that that is not the sign of either profound thought or intellectual honesty. It also raises the question of why he believes—if he does believe—that a government official and military officer should be the arbiters of religious dogma.
If Mr. Jones dd not burn the Qur’ans the first time because they endangered American lives (which we all know have substantially more value than the lived of “furners.”) then what did he think had changed by the second time he decided to do so? And after the symbolic burning the first time, what additional point was made by another attempt—assuming that mere personal aggrandizement is not the purpose.
All of the foregoing leads me to the story that I wanted to tell in the first place. I submit that it is evidence of both journalistic integrity and strong moral character.
The late Bill Giles, former managing editor of the Washington Times (and a personal favorite person) once told me about a quandary he found himself in when the Times was about to run a scoop on U.S. Activity in the Middle East. As is customary and responsible, the Times contacted the CIA for comment. As is customary, the CIA did not confirm or deny the story but did call back to say that if it were to run, it would cost American lives because it could be traced back to its source.
As is customary and responsible, Mr. Giles expressed skepticism and said that he would need more than their say-so to kill the story.
Some time later, Mr. Giles told me, he received a call from the White House: Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr. Cheney repeated the CIA position that running the story would likely cost American lives and Mr. Giles agreed to hold it unless and until he caught a whisper that another news agency might be about to break the story.
The Washington Times had the right to run the story. I suspect that there are journalists (or should I say “journalists”?) who would proudly defy the requests and risk the lives of faceless others. But the real story, I think, is that Mr. Giles, an experienced newsman, had the moral compass to guide him to what is right, even when there was no legal ground for stopping him.
With that said, (and as a former TWT employee I truly love that story.) I wonder what prompted Ms Hull and the Post to give another 15 minutes of fame to the fry cook/preacher/hate-monger who would ignite the flames of hatred and endanger American loves.