Why Something So Trivial Can Be So Dangerous

How can something so trivial be so dangerous?

This is something that we cannot understand. Americans, by and large, cannot and will never empathize nor even understand the resentment felt by Muslims other aggrieved people. They've never experienced it. They've never had to struggle. So how would they know?

Of course, 100 pastors can burn Korans and American will remain the most religiously tolerant place in the world.

Why can't we explain that to the Muslim street?

1. They've been conditioned by Egyptian, Saudi Arabia, the Jordanian ruling classes and militant ideologues to believe that Americans are to blame for their struggles and not the corrupt governments. (This is a consequence of our historically tetchy trade-offs: we keep the ruling families in power to guarantee that we don't get hated/threatened from the top, and get our oil, and instead get asymmetrical threats

2.  Since they've been conditioned, they WANT to believe we're bad. THEY WANT to believe we hate them. THEY WANT to see the bad in us.

And that's why something so trivial like this is dangerous.

The media remains complicit in giving voice to people who should be way on the margins of political debate. But this particular controversy simmered at the local level well before the media (collectively) discovered it. Successful ideologues know how to exploit emotions and moments, and that's what Pastor Jones was able to do. There is also evidence that BEFORE the national U.S. media picked up the story in any significant way, it had already found its way to Taliban and Islamic militant propagandists. That's something you cannot blame the U.S. media for facilitating.

To the extent that Americans think it's unfair that the actions of a few dozen people in Florida could be fairly interpreted as the collective expression of an entire people...well, a large minority of Americans seem willing to believe the worst stereotypes about the Islamic world.  And American demagogues are very quick to point to outrageous occurrences overseas to justify this Islamophobia and pessimism.

At the same time, there is something very different about harmful speech -- burning a Koran -- and stoning a woman to death for adultery.  The first is stupid. The second is immoral.  All of our religions contain weird and often confusing shibboleths about representing the image of God, but the American civic tradition -- the American cultural tradition -- without question does not consider the burning of anything that isn't made of flesh and flood to be something worth going to war over. That includes the American flag.

Lost in this debate has been the distinction between harmful speech and hurtful speech.

Building a Mosque at Ground Zero hurts the feelings of 9/11 victim family members and others. Hurting people isn't good.  Burning the Koran has the potential to harm American soldiers. Harm is worse than hurt. So while we must acknowledge a "right" to do both actions, we can more comfortably place limitations -- hopefully by social shaming -- on one's "right" to use speech acts to harm others. Hurting someone's feelings does not justify intervention, and there is usually plenty of ideas in the marketplace that dilute the impact of something that hurts. But the standard for tolerance of harmful speech ought to be lower.

Universally, if one could ignore Pastor Jones, one would. But it is a consequence of an age where  hecklers can immediately become celebutards, where their actions, because they are TV friendly and symbolically designed to match the moment, become instantly validated expressions of politics, that bomb-throwers like Jones can become instant national stories. Once they become national stories, policy-makers have two choices. Regardless of whether his actions should matter, if they do, then maybe Secretary Gates has to make a phone call. That reality is very hard to swallow.

Whatever's at this conflict's roots, be it a clash of civilizations, a real fight between Judeo-Christian values and Islamic values, a simple but fundamental disagreement about religious tolerance -- we are going to be dealing with it for a long, long time.

Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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