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The Internet: Enabling Pastor Terry Jones and crazies everywhere

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By Michael Gerson
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

It is a horrifying wonder of the Internet age that a failed, half-crazed Florida pastor with a Facebook account can cause checkpoints to be thrown up on major roads in New Delhi, provoke violent demonstrations in Logar province south of Kabul, and be rewarded with the attention of America's four-star commander in Afghanistan and the president of the United States.

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It is the globalization of insanity. It is also the culmination of a certain revolutionary logic.

Since the days of Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, radicals have talked of the "propaganda of the deed" -- the use of dramatic, usually violent, acts to inspire the masses and topple the existing order. The method -- targeting symbolic landmarks to create powerful images -- is now familiar. The killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The first World Trade Center attack. The Oklahoma City bombing. And 9/11 itself.

These events required murder and suicide to gain the global media stage. But the Rev. Terry Jones achieved something new, something that will be studied for generations: the propaganda of the idiotic gesture.

This development was made possible by a number of enabling conditions.

The first is the symbiotic relationship between new and old media. There was a time when gaining attention for saying something stupid required an institutional standing -- a prominent pulpit, a denominational leadership position, a following of more than a few dozen people meeting in a warehouse. In the Internet era, attention for stupidity is a democratic right, rewarded for audacity and timing alone. The new media provide a platform without filters for those without credentials -- people who, in previous times, could not get a letter to the editor published in the shopper's gazette.

The old media enable this trend. A competitive news environment drives saturation coverage. Saturation coverage confers legitimacy -- even as reporters themselves feel guilty in their complicity. Nearly 100 journalists stood sweltering outside the Dove World Outreach Center, waiting on developments from a man whom his daughter described as having "gone mad." At one point, a reporter yelled to Jones, "Are you just toying with us to get attention?" -- the most blindingly obvious question in recent journalism. Another yelled: "You're just using us! We should all leave!" Fearing they might miss something, no one left.

A second enabling condition is the pressure on political figures to respond to the manias of the news cycle. In this case, coverage was being exploited by jihadists in Afghanistan. The U.S. commander on the ground clearly thought confronting this matter would be helpful. But a failure to respond also would have resulted in a judgment from the media itself: that the administration was flat-footed and behind the curve. And so an American president felt compelled to denounce the views of a single, pathetic, irrelevant citizen -- a form of elevation nearly as effective as throwing Jones a state dinner.

A third enabling condition comes from within Islam itself, which is a religion of the book in a way that Christianity is not. In Muslim belief, the words, the language, the pages of divine revelation are themselves sacred. In Christianity, the words only testify to the Word that "became flesh and dwelt among us." And Christianity is more accustomed to having its icons mistreated -- its principal icon, the cross, being an instrument of torture and execution on which its founder was defiled. When the artist Andres Serrano famously photographed a crucifix dipped in urine, the proper Christian response was: He has seen worse.

The theological sensitivities of Islam are different and heightened. For the polite and well-meaning, this is a reason to show particular concern and respect. For the foolish and vicious, including Jones, it is a prime opportunity to give offense.

Responses to the Jones threat were understandable at every stage -- understandable for a competitive media to cover, for a concerned general to confront, for a president to clarify America's commitment to tolerance. But overall, the reaction was a terrible mistake. The idea that an unbalanced pastor with an Internet connection and a poster can cause our nation's highest military and civilian leaders to respond is an invitation to global crackpotocracy -- rule by the most creative and outrageous lunatics.

At some vanishing point of stature and influence, provocations need to be marginalized instead of confronted. We could begin here: If a pastor has fewer than 50 congregants, and his daughter says he "needs help," perhaps he should be ignored.

michaelgerson@washpost.com


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