Either Newsweek‘s editors were oblivious to the inflammatory nature of what they were publishing–when they reported that U.S. soldiers flushed a Koran down a toilet–or they knew the explosive character of the story.
If the first is true, i.e., Newsweek‘s editors had no inkling of a potentially violent Islamic reaction, they are so devoid of judgment as to disqualify themselves from running the Harvard Crimson.
But if Newsweek‘s editors sensed this was an explosive item and printed it anyway, they may fairly be charged with sabotaging U.S. war policy and compromising the cause for which American soldiers are fighting and dying in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Only a few have urged that Newsweek‘s editors be brought up on sedition charges. But what Newsweek did is worse than the antiwar activity for which labor leader Eugene Debs was given 10 years in prison during World War I.
Why did Newsweek do it? Even if the item were true and had been verified, why print it? What benefit could come of the world knowing a U.S. soldier had desecrated a Koran?
Clearly, if a soldier did this in a Guantanamo cellblock, he was not thinking of the worldwide consequences if it were reported. But Newsweek surely had to consider the consequences. Al-Jazeera did, when it rebroadcast the item to the Islamic world. The imams in the mosques, who excoriated America, knew what the effect of their sermons would be: to ratchet up hatred of America and spark violent actions. How could Newsweek not have known?
Was Newsweek innocently serving the people’s right to know, and in a regrettable mistake, failed to double-check a source?
The fallback position of Newsweek defenders is that it is the journalist’s job to report, not censor the news, that they may have made a regrettable mistake in not double-checking the source, for which they apologize, but they are only the messenger, doing his duty, reporting the bad news as well as the good.
This default position cannot stand, for the journalists of our generation have reveled in their power and purpose. They claim to have advanced the civil rights revolution, brought down a president, helped end the Vietnam war. But people who can start revolutions, bring down Presidents and end wars have real power. And when they wield that power of the press, they cannot revert, when things go horribly wrong, to the role of simple messenger who brings to the sovereign the painful truth. People who wield power, as the major media do, are responsible for the consequences of its exercise.
In this case, Newsweek helped produce riots in Afghanistan, Pakistan and across the Islamic world, resulting in 16 dead and causing severe damage to the U.S. campaign to convince a billion Moslems that our enemy is Al Qaeda, not Islam. When Moslems vote in the elections President Bush is promoting, the effect of that Newsweek report will be to propel them toward candidates who openly detest America.
How much of the goodwill done by U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq has been undone? How much greater is the danger today to our friends, our soldiers, our civilian volunteers, and even our tourists in the Middle East? We cannot know.
But it must be considerable. What, after all, is the sense of Bush setting up a powerful State Department office under Karen Hughes to battle the negative image of America in the Islamic world, when Newsweek, with one item, can wipe out years of work?
But there is an even larger point here. Does America have the capacity to run an empire or manage any global coalition, when her image in the world is in the custody of baby boomers marinated in a culture of contempt for the sacred?
In recent years, we have seen movies like The Last Temptation of Christ make a mockery of the Savior of Mankind. We have seen scatological images of the Virgin Mary featured in museums. We have seen Piss Christ and other outrages funded by our National Endowment for the Arts — and defended by our free press.
A country and a culture like this, in which everything may be ridiculed, mocked and parodied, including Jesus of Nazareth, Islam and the Koran–as in Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses–cannot win a war for the hearts and minds of pious, poor and devout Muslims, to whom the Koran is the literal word of Allah, for whom they should be willing to lay down their lives.
Twentieth-century Americans lack the temperament, the reserve, and the respect for foreign faiths and cultures; the reverence for the sacred needed to lead a world where religious fundamentalism is soaring.
Give up the empire. We’re going to lose it anyhow. You can’t run an empire with moral nihilists in charge of your culture and of the image of America as presented to the world.