Out of the media muck, an idiot emerges

Posted: Sunday, September 12, 2010

By the time you read this, Terry Jones will have burned the Quran.

Or not.

At deadline time, Jones' so-called "International Burn The Quran Day" - also known as Sept. 11, 2010, the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks - was on hold. He said he'd reached an agreement with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf not to go through with plans to make a bonfire of Qurans if Rauf would cancel plans to build a mosque near ground zero. Rauf said this was news to him, whereupon Jones said he'd now have to "rethink" whether to go ahead with the burning.

And there it stood as of Friday: People in Muslim capitals from Indonesia to Egypt to Afghanistan, editors of every newspaper from the New York Times to the Irish Times to The Miami Herald to the Syndey (Australia) Morning Herald, al-Jazeera, CNN, Fox News, Gen. David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama himself, all waiting at tiptoe stance to see what Terry Jones would do.

There is something more than a little ludicrous about that.

Maybe you know the term "terrorist veto." It refers to the ability of a single obscure malcontent, powerless but for his willingness to sacrifice lives, to make himself heard at the highest level of geopolitics and force his way upon the international stage.

As this case makes oppressively clear, the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle have evolved an analog to the terrorist veto. Call it the idiot veto - the ability of a single obscure malcontent, powerless but for his willingness to do some outrageous thing, to make himself heard at the highest level of geopolitics and force his way upon the international stage.

Two weeks ago, no one had ever heard of Jones, podunk pastor of a tiny church - 50 members - in Gainesville, Fla. Twenty years ago, his proclaimed intention to burn the Quran "might" have gotten him a few minutes on the rump end of the local TV newscast.

But that was before mass media exploded and every one of us became a news purveyor unto him- or herself. Jones' bigoted idiocy - and yes, he has a constitutional right to be a bigoted idiot - has won him worldwide attention out of all proportion to any intrinsic significance of the man himself. As one Muslim leader noted Thursday night, Jones has more cameras following him than church members.

If the stakes were not so high, if his threatened action did not portend international riots, increase the danger to American troops, and jeopardize the nation's global standing, the whole thing would be downright laughable. And the funniest part would be that we did this to ourselves.

There is an enduring human conceit which holds that improved communication equals improved understanding equals peace. That conceit is as old as the folks who wondered how there could be a Civil War since North and South were linked by telegraph, and as modern as the Ellen Page commercial for Cisco Systems where children in the United States video chat with kids in China.

Our faith in communication to bring people together has occasionally been validated; think of how cellphone video of a dying woman named Neda brought the world to the side of Iranian protesters.

But often, that faith seems naive, if not misplaced. Mass media are omnivorous and uncritical, magnifying the bizarre and deservedly obscure until history itself spins on the whims of any lone lunatic who is willing to be crazy enough.

We have yet to figure a way to embrace the promise of new media but avoid the pitfalls. Until we do, we will always be vulnerable to the ability of that lunatic to hold the whole world hostage.

Our attention is the only weapon he needs.

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.



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