Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Placing Blame Where it Belongs

On Monday, Newsweek officially retracted its May 9th story claiming that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay flushed a copy of the Koran down a toilet. News of the alleged desecration of the Muslim holy book sparked rioting in Afghanistan that claimed nearly 20 lives.

Newsweek has come under enormous criticism for publishing such a poorly-sourced story that led to such terrible consequences, and deservedly so. The magazine's conduct was extremely irresponsible. However, the critics are wrong when they try to blame Newsweek for the resulting violence in Afghanistan. As Andrew C. McCarthy has pointed out at National Review Online, the Koran report was not the cause of the violence, merely a pretext:

Here's an actual newsflash — and one, yet again, that should be news to no one: The reason for the carnage here was, and is, militant Islam. Nothing more.

Newsweek merely gave the crazies their excuse du jour. But they didn't need a report of Koran desecration to fly jumbo jets into skyscrapers, to blow up embassies, or to behead hostages taken for the great sin of being Americans or Jews. They didn't need a report of Koran desecration to take to the streets and blame the United States while enthusiastically taking innocent lives. This is what they do.

The outpouring of righteous indignation against Newsweek glides past a far more important point. Yes, we're all sick of media bias. But "Newsweek lied and people died" is about as worthy a slogan as the scurrilous "Bush lied and people died" that it parrots. And when we engage in this kind of mindless demagoguery, we become just another opportunistic plaintiff — no better than the people all too ready to blame the CIA because Mohammed Atta steered a hijacked civilian airliner into a big building, and to sue the Port Authority because the building had the audacity to collapse from the blow.

What are we saying here? That the problem lies in the falsity of Newsweek's reporting? What if the report had been true? And, if you're being honest with yourself, you cannot say — based on common sense and even ignoring what we know happened at Abu Ghraib — that you didn't think it was conceivably possible the report could have been true. Flushing the Koran down a toilet (assuming for argument's sake that our environmentally correct, 3.6-liters-per-flush toilets are capable of such a feat) is a bad thing. But rioting? Seventeen people killed? That's a rational response?

Sorry, but I couldn't care less about Newsweek. I'm more worried about the response and our willful avoidance of its examination. Afghanistan has been an American reconstruction project for nearly four years. Pakistan has been a close American "war on terror" ally for just as long. This is what we're getting from the billions spent, the lives lost, and the grand project of exporting nonjudgmental, sharia-friendly democracy? A killing spree? Over this?

The Smug Delusion of Base Expectations

I do think McCarthy's last comment is a bit cynical. The demonstrations in Pakistan actually turned out to be a damp squib, while the violence in Afghanistan appears to have been the work of a small minority. Overall, we have made good progress in Afghanistan, considering the circumstances. It is to be hoped that the impact of this report doesn't retard those efforts.

Still, McCarthy's essential point is right. How many times have Christian symbols been desecrated in the name of "art? Yet no one rioted. When Palestinian thugs took refuge from the Israeli army in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity in April 2002, they thoroughly looted and defiled the place. Again, no violence by Christians in response.

We should do everything possible to avoid insulting Muslims and their faith. But we do them, and ourselves, no favors when we ignore or excuse behavior that can only be described as barbarous.


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