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Pastor Terry Jones, as right as John Brown

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; A21

There is a glint of John Brown in the eyes of the Rev. Terry Jones, a bit of theatrical madness and a Gingrichian lust for the spotlight. His plan to burn the Koran was canceled, or, given the way these things often go, maybe merely postponed. For CNN will call again or the "Today" show will run out of missing white girls and Jones will again feel compelled to burn someone else's holy book, striking a match to illuminate his own bigotry and, while he's at it, forcing us to take sides. I stand with Jones.

I hope I don't have to explain that I am hardly anti-Muslim. I hope, too, that I don't have to explain that I find Jones objectionable, and I wondered, back eons ago in Instant Media Time (last week), why Newt Gingrich didn't call him or Sarah Palin tweet him or Rick Lazio issue a news release in which they all said that while they share his compulsion to exploit a fear of Islam, they thought he had gone about his publicity-seeking in the wrong way. They might have succeeded, although Jones might have retorted that moderation in pursuit of publicity is no virtue and extremism in the same pursuit is no vice. Something like that.

John Brown confronted pre-Civil War America with a dilemma. He had either murdered or approved of murder in the cause of anti-slavery and he led an insurrection at Harpers Ferry. The vicissitudes of life (the deaths of children and of his first wife) and especially the searing injustice of slavery had taken a toll on him. He was possibly mad, but his cause certainly was not, and when the state of Virginia hanged him, not a few people -- among them Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau -- thought a great man had been murdered.

Jones is neither a great man nor the leader of a great cause. But what he wanted to do was both permissible under our system and, in a sense, valued. He was attempting to make a statement. It was chaotic and bigoted, but it was a political statement nonetheless, and he had every right to make it. Still, President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Afghanistan War commander Gen. David Petraeus urged him to stand down -- the lives of American soldiers were at stake. Jones stood down.

This was not the first time the threat of violence in the Islamic world has had a chastening effect here -- nor will it be the last. I have yet to see the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published originally in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. The one drawn by Kurt Westergaard and considered particularly objectionable generated riots and, ultimately, an attack on Westergaard himself. The violence, actual or threatened, intimidated the Western media.

Westergaard survived the attack, a horrific home invasion, summoning the police from his panic room. As the novelist Salman Rushdie once did, he lives under police protection. Rushdie, of course, had his life threatened for his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses," which was characterized as insulting to Islam. As with Westergaard, Rushdie was condemned both by certain Muslims and by certain non-Muslims. More frequently, the fatwa was greeted by a studied indifference -- a pox on both their houses, that of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who ordered Rushdie's death and the insensitive Rushdie who did not understand that post-colonial peoples are always right.

Into this maelstrom of conflicting values has stepped German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Just this month she honored Westergaard with a media prize. She did so even though Germany has about 4,600 troops in Afghanistan, the third-largest NATO contingent. "The secret to freedom is courage," she said at the awards ceremony, citing the role a free press had played in freeing her native East Germany. It turns out that some values are more valuable than others.

Barack Obama did as he had to. His first obligation is to protect American lives -- especially troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, somehow in the back of his mind he must have acknowledged a competing obligation to protect American values and not, as too many people did with Rushdie and Westergaard, consent to ones antithetical to our own. Jones is a jerk, a Warholian concoction who used his allotted 15 minutes of fame to trigger concern at home and riots abroad. He is ugly in aspect and message, yet if a line were drawn and I had to choose a side, I would have no choice. I stand with him.

cohenr@washpost.com

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