Seventeen people have been killed and hundreds wounded in riots by Muslims since Newsweek published its story about an American interrogator flushing a Koran down the toilet at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay. And yet the media establishment seems preoccupied only with the fact that Newsweek, in publishing a false story, has done a very bad thing. And that the Bush Administration must do something to soothe Muslim feelings.
There is no excusing Newsweek’s irresponsibility in this. But this is not really a story about media bias or carelessness. There is a much larger story that is getting hardly any attention at all. The gorilla in the living room that no one wants to notice, is that flushing a Koran down the toilet should not be grounds to commit murder.
This aspect of the story is being ignored by spokesmen on both the Left and the Right. After the initial reports of rioting, Juan Cole sputtered, “Whatever g****m military genius came up with the bright idea of flushing the Koran down the toilet at Guantanamo should be court-martialed, and Bush had better get out there apologizing before this thing spirals further out of control.” On the other side of the political spectrum, Paul Marshall wrung his hands in National Review: “Even if Newsweek publishes a full retraction, the damage is done. Much of the Muslim world will regard it merely as a cover-up and feel reconfirmed in the view that America is at war with Islam.”
Neither Cole nor Marshall, however, made any moral judgment about the rioters. Marshall was furious with Newsweek: “It would be charitable to think that if Newsweek had known how explosive the story was it may have held off until it had more confirmation. If this is true, it is an indication that the media’s widespread failure to pay careful attention to the complexities of religion not only misleads us about domestic and international affairs but also gets people killed.” Cole directed his anger at Bush: “Bush should just come out and say we can’t be sure that it happened, but if it did it was an excess, and he apologizes if it did happen, and will make sure it doesn’t happen again (if it did).”
Neither one says anything whatsoever about a culture that condones — celebrates —wanton murder of innocent people, mayhem, and destruction in response to the alleged and unproven destruction of a book.
The question here is one of proportionate response. If a Koran had indeed been flushed, Muslims would have justifiably been offended. They may justifiably have considered the perpetrators boors, or barbarians, or hell-bound unbelievers. They may justifiably have issued denunciations accordingly. But that is all. To kill people thousands of miles away who had nothing to do with the act, and then fulminate with threats and murder against the entire Western world, all because of this alleged act, is not just disproportionate. It is not just excessive. It is mad. And every decent person in the world ought to have the courage to stand up and say that it is mad.
I suspect that even Juan Cole and Paul Marshall know that it is mad too. But why don’t they say so? Because Rule #1 in the establishment (Left and Right) view of this present conflict is that it has nothing to do with Islam. To bring a moral judgment to bear upon Muslim people, or to explore the ways in which Islam fuels the conflict, is therefore absolutely forbidden.
This kind of analysis, dominant as it is in the media, does the Western world an enormous disservice. The reaction to the Newsweek story in the Muslim world only shows how critical it is that the elements of Islam that give rise to fanaticism and violence be examined and confronted. Lives are at stake. But Cole and Marshall, and many others like them on both the Left and the Right, can’t see this necessity through the enveloping fog of political correctness.