Seeking sanity in the asylum

Kathleen Parker
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Posted: May 18, 2005 12:00 AM

Reaction to an inaccurate Newsweek report that led recently to rioting and death in Afghanistan suggests that hysteria is, indeed, contagious.

To briefly recap, Newsweek reported in a small blurb (May 9) that American interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had flushed a Koran down a toilet in attempts to get Muslim terror suspects to talk. Once the Newsweek story was broadcast abroad, the usually reticent hate-America crowd erupted in mass pique. Havoc ensued. At least 15 Afghans died and many more were injured.

All because of a story that may not have been true. The "knowledgeable U.S. government source" who told Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and John Barry about the flushing apparently wasn't so knowledgeable. At the risk of seeming insensitive, may I suggest that c'est la guerre, and urge everyone to follow Dr. Lamaze's always-useful advice: Breathe deeply and focus.

What we need here is a little perspective.

First, we all can agree that flushing a Koran down a toilet, if physically possible, would be both insensitive and rude, though Westerners generally have a higher tolerance threshold for such offenses. Put it this way: You could flush a Bible down the toilet in front of Goober in Kabul, and it's unlikely that Mayberry suddenly would be awash in blood.

Without disrespecting true believers of Islam, one also could debate the relative miseries of seeing our favorite scripture disappear into the plumbing versus, say, watching airplanes fly into buildings, killing thousands of innocents. Remember, these are terrorist suspects captured after 9/11, not kidnapped members of an Afghan boys choir.

The apparent Newsweek mistake was regrettable, but we should beware allowing ourselves to mirror the emotional reactions of people who were by no measure justified in their response - even if the story had been proven true. The same people foaming over a reported act of blasphemy didn't flinch while executing women for stepping outside sans burqa. I'm afraid my moral outrage in favor of the morally outrageous is all tapped out.

While the world was reacting in righteous indignation to the Newsweek report, another story was circulating about Turkish women in Germany being executed by family members in "honor killings" sanctioned by certain interpretations of the Koran. Their offense? Acting like Western women. Or, in the pithy words of a 14-year-old Turkish boy who was justifying an execution: "The whore lived like a German."

Before the good Muslim world objects, let me assert what shouldn't need saying: Islam isn't the problem here. The problem is ignorance and the right-wing Islamist faction that will use the Koran for its purposes, whether to incite a riot or murder a woman who refuses to wear her headscarf. The enemy is extremism.

I have no interest either in defending Newsweek or in justifying interrogators' methods, but let's be blunt: Those rampaging in Afghanistan didn't need a reason to riot; they needed an excuse. That the media provided one is regrettable, but that regret needs to be tempered by perspective and objectivity.

Instead, much of the anger the past several days has been directed not at the Islamist extremists who went berserk, but at the reporters who apparently got the story wrong. What if they'd been right? Should Newsweek not have reported it? Would the riots have been justified if someone had flushed a Koran?

We might debate those questions, but meanwhile, we should resist the urge to overreact as some have in suggesting that the press should be restricted or stifled. Although imperfect, a free press is one of our nation's highest expressions of freedom and the thing that separates us from the same right-wing, authoritarian, extremist forces that we condemn. Yet, an alarming number of Americans, their faith in journalists damaged by recent scandals, have lost sight of the meaning and importance of a free press.

A recent University of Connecticut survey found, for example, that only 14 percent of respondents knew that freedom of the press was part of the First Amendment. Only 55 percent of those surveyed strongly agreed that newspapers should be allowed "to publish freely without government approval of a story." Now there's a finding to warm the cockles of a Taliban heart.

Once we start asking government permission to publish, we become partners in propaganda and cohorts of authoritarianism. Far better to risk mistakes - and even riots from the lunatic fringe - than to forfeit the right to question authority.

Mistakes will be made, but freedom means living to say, "I'm sorry."