I’ve been asked what I’d do about the crackpot pastor Terry Jones, the Quran-burning Florida redneck who keeps a poster of Mel Gibson’s ‘Braveheart’ in his office for “spiritual sustenance.” It would be wonderful to just laugh, but last week Jones’ idiocy set off the reciprocal idiocy of riots in Afghanistan that have so far resulted in at least 24 deaths (in addition to the 5 he caused last September when he first threatened to burn the Quran). It’s a horrendous example of how prejudice feeds prejudice and ignorance feeds ignorance — with the food being other people’s blood.
If ever you wanted proof that extremists of all faiths are the real co-religionists, this was it. Terry Jones meet your soul brothers: the Taliban.
What actually happened? The publicity-hungry Jones, whose entire church consists of some twenty family members, was encouraged to hold a mock trial of the Quran by Ahmed Abaza, a former Muslim who runs a deliriously amateurish satellite channel called TheTruthTV — that tell-tale capitalized Truth yet again. (Abaza’s testimony to his conversion to “the light of Christ,” apparently intended as heart-rending, is here, if you can stand it). Abaza obligingly live-streamed the trial proceedings, and then (the verdict being a foregone conclusion) Jones carried out his heart’s desire, got out a can of firelighter fluid, and burned a copy.
The American media acted with uncharacteristic wisdom and ignored the event. All might yet have been calm if word of the burning had not reached Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardawi and Afghanistan president Hamid Kharzai, who then tried to outdo each other in condemning it — an excellent way to distract attention from the real problems in their respective countries, especially at a time when both are highly aware that the call for regime change throughout the Middle East might spread to threaten their hold on power too. Three fire-and-brimstone mullahs took up the call the next day at Friday prayer, inciting an anti-American mob out for blood, and UN workers paid the price.
So what would I do? Well, as you can imagine, my fantasies at first tended to my own version of violent retribution, but then my better side took over. So here’s my proposal, courtesy of existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, whose play Huis Clos (No Exit) is starkly simple in conception: three people locked together in a bare room, slowly realizing that where they are is hell. As they tear each other apart with words, they conclude, in the play’s most famous line, that “hell is other people.”
Jones, Karzai, and Zardawi locked together for eternity, condemned to listen to each other’s vanity and bombast? That might not be the perfect punishment, but it’s a damned good one.
[The only question: should Jones be allowed to take his ‘Braveheart’ poster into the room with him? For the sake of ensuring Karzai and Zardawi’s ongoing torment, I’d have to vote yes.]