Ignore This Idiot

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 8 2010 11:01 AM

Ignore This Idiot

I've been trying to decide what I'm reminded of when I read about Rev. Terry Jones and the Dove Outreach Center -- the pastor and the congregation that plan to hold a mass burning of Korans. And I'd have to say he seems like some over-the-top Billy Wilder villain come to life. Let's step away from the news cycle and realize the full stupidity of what he's doing. He has a church of, at most, 50 congregants. He decorates a bus with the message "International Burn A Koran Day" (the celebration will take three hours according to this sign). He waits for attention. He gets it! And he gets to hold the country, or at least the part of the country that pays attention to such news, hostage, with reporters getting the Secretary of State and our general in Afghanistan on the record to condemn this nobody. Instead of dying in obscurity, he'll die a has-been. Good work.

Our last Billy Wilder-ish villain with a comparable plan was -- I guess still is -- Rev. Fred Phelps, who has made a living and won international stardom by whisking his cult to military funerals which they protest with "God Hates Fags" signs. If anyone's wringing his hands about the free speech implications of smacking down Jones, remember how we overreacted to Phelps. We passed legislation barring people like him from protesting funerals. We probably won't overreact the same way to Jones, because who's going to pass a law banning Koran-burning. Instead, we're going to wish really hard that he decides not to do this. He's turned us into a dinner theater audience trying to resurrect Tinkerbell by clapping.

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Will Jones inspire copycats? We don't know, but isn't he exposing a real weakness in how we talk about terrorism? Hawks like to discuss the "existential threat" of "radical Islam," and compare it alternately to the threat of Communism and the threat posed by the Nazis. But a religion isn't like Communism or Nazism. You're going to have to co-exist with it, because you can't defeat it or disprove it. It's pretty foolhardy to talk in win/defeat terms about terrorism, then, when doing so allows a lone idiot in Florida to affect the course of the War on Terror.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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