Somewhere across space and time, a caveman is rethinking his decision to invent the wheel and fire. “Why bother?” he thinks. “In thousands of years, my descendants will still be fighting and killing and burning things they disagree with.”
Someone burns holy text; 20 people perish in ensuing riots.
What is this, the 12th century?
Gutenberg with his printing press and Edison with his light bulb, and Al Gore — or whoever it was — who invented the Internet and fire surely never dreamed that their inventions would one day be combined to allow Florida pastor Terry Jones to place a Koran on trial, burn it and place the whole thing on the Internet.
No matter how far we come, the Caveman rears his head.
Jones certainly thought he was making a point — about violence and the Koran, or something. But the only point he’s managed to make is that human beings haven’t come as far as we thought.
Surely, you’d think, a society advanced enough to broadcast this and watch it online through a series of semimiraculous tubes that transmit meaniningful patterns of light and sound across vast distances would be advanced enough not to do it in the first place — or not to respond to such provocative idiocy with violence. It’s not a question of belief. It’s not a question of free speech. It’s a question of maturity.
Book burnings? Least of all holy texts?
The Inquisition called. It wants its modus operandi back.
Surely we are destroying books fast enough, in all kinds of more insidious ways. Only the other day I came across someone reading “1984” on an iPad with no apparent sense of irony.
What Terry Jones did was clearly wrong. But the response is equally medieval. To say that he was responsible for the killings is also specious. If I say, “Write ‘Tapenade’ on that blackboard and I will go on a shooting rampage through Kentucky,” and you still write “tapenade,” that doesn’t mean writing “tapenade” should be banned — regardless of what Sen. Lindsey Graham might say. Similarly, there’s a flaw in the equation that places responsibility for the rioting and killings on Jones’ shoulders. His action is despicable whether or not violence ensues — but it is not illegal.
I thought we’d matured. But evolution demands certain trade-offs. When you drag yourself up out of the ocean to walk on land, you cease to be able to swim and breathe underwater. When you begin to travel in cars, you lose the ability to ride horses. And when your society develops the Internet, you ought to lose the ability to run around in torchlit mobs burning things you disagree with.
We don’t live in the Middle Ages. And if you regret that, you’re welcome to return. Miss the ability to have auto-da-fes? Give me back that iPad. Like the medieval attitude? Please, don this doublet and hose, give back your lifespan and hand us your car keys. Choose to kill because someone chose to burn a book? Hand over that Internet connection!
Medieval action combined with 21st-century technology is a recipe for disaster. Before, when a moron halfway across the world performed a deed like this, you could pretend you didn’t see. Now everything is in everyone’s back yard. The very technology that allows us to witness moments of beauty and poignancy and applaud, to glimpse the horror of hurricanes at first-hand and reach out to help, or even listen to Rebecca Black’s “Friday” on loop, has this horrifying flip-side: It makes the distant and irrelevant suddenly proximate and pressing.
But civilization means nothing more or less than the ability to live with people. As the Internet connects us, we are forced to live with more and more, even vile people who distort God’s word into virulent hate. To respond to this with provocative immaturity — or, even worse, with deadly violence — is to prove that we have learned nothing. Instead of fusing us into one community, it polarizes us, separates us, fosters indignation and hate.
And we wind up where we started, hunched around fires in the dark.