Unfortunately there is a long history of humans believing they can destroy ideas by burning the books that contain those ideas. The practice hardly began with a crackpot preacher in Florida, but dates back to the Inquisition, the Spanish conquest of the “New World” and even ancient China.
In May of 1933, in the town where Martin Luther nailed his famous Theses to the church door, pro-Nazi students burned 25,000 books deemed “un-German.” Included were works by the German Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann, a guy named Hemingway and, of course, works by Karl Marx, Socialists and Jews. The pictures and what they foretold are haunting and should tell us something.
Two things about the story out of Florida are worth noting it seems to me. The first is the enormous media attention lavished on Rev. Terry Jones. Not bad for a guy, as Gail Collins pointed out, who has built a thriving congregation of “about 50 people.” In a matter of hours, Jones’ plan to burn the Quran went viral sparking protests in Afghanistan, worry about the impact on our soldiers in the field, comments from every politician in the nation, etc. More important, perhaps, the Aljazerra website has been all over the story.
Additionally, I’m struck by the fact – as we approach the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks – how far we have come, in the wrong direction, in building a worldwide consensus to oppose the radical forces that operate in the shadow of Islam.
I remember George W. Bush – megaphone in hand, standing on the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center – and the profound sense that the United States, at that huge moment in time, had the moral force to lead a worldwide effort to confront extremism. For a brief moment, the world was with us, but…well, apparently we blew it and here we are nine years later.
Now I fear the message sent by Rev, Jones, and folks like Newt Gingrich fulminating against a Muslim Cultural Center in lower Manhattan, paints America as unfaithful to our own professed and cherished traditions of religious freedom and tolerance. A perception of hypocrisy doesn’t play well in any culture.
Books – even books we would never read or whose content we abhor – are important things. They are symbols, as well as repositories of history, culture and, at a very important level, tolerance.
I’m not a big fan of Sidney Shelton or Barbara Cartland. In fact, I’ve never cracked a cover of either of those best selling authors, but they have huge followings and you have to respect that. I don’t read the Quran, either, but 22% of the people on the planet do and their numbers are growing at a rate faster than the world’s population.
Sending a billion and a half people regular telegrams from America with a message that we hate them doesn’t seem like a winning strategy.
It also doesn’t seem like America.