Holy War

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

It took the U.S. secretary of defense, for God’s sake, to get a Florida preacher to cancel his plans for pyrotechnic sacrilege on Sept. 11. A few days later, CNN asked some of its blog contributors to reflect on the incident… “now that the crisis is over.”

We’re neck deep in two wars (excuse me, one and a half) and an imploding economy, not to mention global warming, endemic violence and hurricane season, but Terry Jones’ creepy publicity stunt has the status of a national crisis: America’s close call! We came this close to offending Muslims!

Oh, we are a sensitive nation.

And Jones was, indeed, dabbling at the margins of holy war, which media coverage managed to turn into a global phenomenon. “. . . he ignited an international conflagration of outrage,” as CNN put it, though he didn’t do it by himself.

One of the core paradoxes of our news industry is that it grew in breadth and scope — in its ability to reach billions of people — well ahead of its growth in depth and insightful coverage. It’s as sensation-mongering as it was in its penny broadsheet days, and thus a marginal, gun-toting preacher and his obscene little plan to burn several hundred Qurans became capriciously catapulted into an international news story and a “national crisis.”

All the while, we press on with our “war on terror,” which over the last nine years has managed to become fabulously expensive background noise (except, of course, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places where it’s actually being waged, and among the troops fighting it and their anxious or shattered families). This war of oil and empire presses on in its inevitability, having long ago transcended the original lies that birthed it.

Funny thing is, there’s plenty of Terry Jones in our mission (originally it was a “crusade,” remember?) in the Middle East, plenty of holy hell and demonizing of Islam. There has always been a shadowy, 12th century edge to the war, which was launched amid serious (and seriously reported) neocon bluster about a “clash of civilizations.” And throughout the fighting, high-ranking Evangelical Christians — from Lt. Gen. William Boykin, former undersecretary of defense, to Lt. Col. Gary Hensley, chief of U.S. military chaplains in Afghanistan — have contorted the war into a quest for souls and a clash of deities (our God is the real God).

Before the November 2004 assault on Fallujah, a lieutenant colonel told his troops (as quoted by a BBC reporter): “The enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. He lives in Fallujah. And we’re going to destroy him.”

And the religion-tinged racism of our military occupation is well-documented by conscience-stricken veterans of the war on terror. For instance, Mike Totten, speaking at the 2008 Winter Soldier hearings in Washington, D.C., discussed how the Army twisted the word “hadji,” which means an Islamic religious pilgrim, into the “gook” stand-in of the Iraq war. “The hadji is an obstacle. Get him out of the way,” Totten’s sergeant major was wont to say. Totten added: “Denying a person their name gave us permission to separate ourselves from the people of Iraq.”

Compared to all this, Terry Jones and his erstwhile Quran barbecue plans were chump change — a planned spectacle of his own and his congregation’s ignorance. While the burning would have enraged many Muslims and possibly incited some to vengeful violence, it might also have emboldened the religious bigots within the ranks of our own military and among the war’s diehard supporters. (And of course there were some copycat Quran burnings reported, even though Jones held off on his own plans.)

So Jones became an official crisis — a PR crisis — who needed to be publicly rebuked and, God willing, stopped. Modern, industrial wars, fought by a modern empire, aren’t supposed to be holy wars, even though war itself is a concept steeped in the fanaticism of religion and nationalism. Just as George Bush’s PR team had to stifle their crusadin’ commander in chief, so the far savvier Barack Obama has to insist on a sober, separation-of-church-and-state war fought only for reasons of national security.

“In a world of global communications, crackpots such as the would-be Quran-burners in Florida can disrupt the U.S. war on terror,” Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation, wrote as his contribution to CNN’s “lessons learned” blog.

To distinguish the responsible pursuers of the war on terror from crackpots like Jones, Fishman quoted Gen. David Petraeus’ words to the troops in Afghanistan: “Live our values. Stay true to the values we hold dear. This is what distinguishes us from our enemies.”

From Guantanamo to Bagram to Baghdad to Fallujah, let us live our values, perpetrating only the torture we allow in our own prisons, only the violence we allow in our own ghettos, only the toxic horrors we allow in our own soil and water, and only the corruption we allow in our own halls of Congress.