“We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against.” Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
The news that thousands of enraged Afghans surged out of their mosques on Friday, April 1, in Mazir-e-Sharif, Northern Afghanistan, and stormed the UN compound, killing 8 to 12 officials and wounding many others, came as a blow to the face. Equally shocking was the immediate cause of the rampage: the mock trial and burning of the Qu’ran by Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, on March 20. There’s no question that he and his flock at the Dove World Outreach Center intended the act as a deliberate provocation. The media were alerted, the event was televised. While it did not receive the media coverage that Jones intended, the news certainly got to the imams in that part of Afghanistan. Never let it be said that a bad deed goes unnoticed around the world. The simmering anger against foreigners of all kinds in the country was kicked up to the boiling point by the act itself and the exploitation of it by the holy men of Mazir-e-Sharif. Jones and the imams: two sides of the same tarnished coin.
In moments like these it’s hard not to fall into sweeping generalizations and stereotypes. We look at these heinous acts and want to strike back in kind. We search for reasons that will make sense of it all: These are rational people; have they all gone mad?
I try to imagine someone running at the edge of the crowd, curious but not yet furious, attracted like Elias Canetti notes in Crowds and Power, to the black spot where the crowd is thickest. Something is going to happen, we don’t know what yet, but it’s worth sticking around to find out. And then let’s say the crowd arrives at the gates of the UN compound. In moments they confront, disarm, and shoot the Nepalese security with their own weapons, swarm through the gates, over the walls and into the building itself. Let us shadow our outrider at the edge of the crowd; he has penetrated the walls and has been swept with the others into the building itself. Does he stop for just a moment to ask himself where this is leading? Does he feel any sympathy for the fallen guards? Is he so blinded by anger that his vision narrows to the bodies swirling around him and the din in his head of shots, screams, cries, chants, blocks his own thoughts? Does he pull back into a corridor and let the mob surge past him, realizing that he cannot force his way back against the stream? Does he then abandon himself to the bloody rush with a mixture of fear, guilt, and a kind of strange relief? And afterward, down the hot, dusty streets to home, trying to wipe the blood from his clothes, does he wonder what his wife and children will ask? how he will reconstruct the events? what role he will play in this drama? how much heroism he will (modestly) admit to in overcoming the Great Satan?
Does Pastor Terry Jones feel the hand of God soothing him as he prays? As he watches himself on TV, reads about himself online, and takes in the questions flung at him by reporters, does he feel a dissociation from the events? Does he watch from a distance as this person he knows, Terry Jones, straightens his shoulders, furrows his brow, and ponderously justifies his actions before the world? Or is it all so far away, so much like an event unwinding before him that he must drop his eyes to snap himself back to the present?
Canetti says we lose our fear of being touched when we join a crowd. We and the crowd are one, one body surging this way and that, a body without a head, witless, slavering, beast-like, mindless. . .
But that’s not like our Pastor Terry Jones. His is a mission, a battle against evil, a redressing of all the wrongs suffered by honest, God-fearing Americans since 9/11. It’s lonely at the top with this kind of knowledge. Pausing to peer in the mirror as he shaves he studies the lines around his eyes and feels the burden of righteousness on his shoulders. As he straightens his tie, his hand upon the doorknob, he takes a breath, knowing the press will be camped on his lawn. The message must go out he thinks. Lord, give me the strength I need to speak the truth. Help me to take the sufferings that come my way as You did, going to the cross to die for me, me! Your humble servant. . . And he opens the door to his day of infamy.
Now the blaming begins. Now come the expressions of outrage, the impotent words of heads of state, throttling their visceral rage and modulating it into phrases of stern neutrality. Now come the bands of pundits, swiveling in their chairs on the Fox news sets, calculating the odds of the next poll chronicling the decline of the President’s opinion ratings. Expect an avalanche of tweeting from potential candidates for 2012. Someone somewhere watches in quiet satisfaction as stocks rise. There is money to be made in any tragedy.
And our Afghani outrider, the one who let himself be swept along in the mob? We may see him now, alone in his home, pausing before he kneels for prayers, his hand up to his forehead for a moment, as if he began a motion he doesn’t know how to complete.