What if the world went up in a mushroom cloud over a cartoon - or because of a photograph of some reveler dressed up like a pig?
Well, of course, that would be absurd, a comedy, a Clouseauean flick about a bumbling inspector, right? No, that would be a documentary about the end of civilization circa 2006 - unless we come to our senses.
The cartoon implosion now rocking the Muslim world - featuring embassy burnings, threats of 9-11 sequels and the Arab street equivalent of the Terrible Twos - is based on equal parts fake photographs and a default riot mode looking for an excuse. Extreme propaganda on one side and a lack of fortitude on the other have brought us near the brink of extinction through a global act of accidental self-mockery.
The world isn't mad over cartoons; the world IS a cartoon.
The dozen Danish drawings everyone by now has heard about - but not necessarily seen thanks to our own media's sanctimonious sensitivity to insanity - were mild by modern satirical standards. In brief, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten last September published 12 cartoons that depicted Muhammad in various poses. The worst of them showed the Prophet wearing a bomb-turban.
Naturally, the Muslim world has gone insane.
And unnaturally, much of the Western world has retreated into fetal repose. Only in Europe did a few newspapers republish the allegedly offensive cartoons, while most American papers have genuflected to the altar of multiculturalism.
One after another, editors have explained their decision not to run the images for fear of offending American Muslims. Never mind that the same papers, notably The Boston Globe, felt no such compunction in the past when they defended "Piss Christ," a photograph of crucifix submerged in urine. Or the Virgin Mary covered in feces.
Meanwhile, querulous Americans still reliant on traditional media are left in the kind of darkness admired by Islamic states. How are they to debate and make a judgment about the cartoons without seeing them?
They can go to the blogosphere, that's how.
The Internet is now the only place Americans can view the cartoons and, as a bonus, learn that much of the outrage now seething through the Middle East was stoked not by the cartoons in question, but by three bogus photographs circulated by the (peace-loving) Islamic Society of Denmark. A spokesman for the group said they circulated the photos to demonstrate Denmark's Islamophobia.
Except that the photographs weren't published in Denmark or elsewhere on terra firma. One of them, allegedly depicting Muhammad dressed like a pig, is in fact a photo of Frenchman Jacques Barrot as he participated in last August's annual French Pig-Squealing Championships in Trie-sur-Baise. And that's no joke.
The pig photograph, lifted from an MSNBC story, is posted at neanderNews.com, where other blogs (Gateway Pundit and Counter Terrorism Blog) also are credited with reporting the photoscam. The other photos (origins unknown), including one of a man dressed in Arab garb being mounted by a dog, are the sort of images bored college students Photoshop in dorm rooms late at night.
Whether Islamophobia inspired any of these images is a question for documentarians to explore. Meanwhile, fear for our future is an appropriate response to mass insanity. But potentially more dangerous than short-fused fanatics is our own cowardice in declining to treat this madness as anything but inexcusably barbaric.
Instead, we kneel in apology for our own hard-won principles. Newspapers especially deserve contempt for their spineless refusal to deal honestly with this controversy. Instead of publishing the cartoons and explaining why free expression is central to the West's survival, editors with few exceptions have swaddled themselves in the blankie of "sensitivity."
Kudos and curtseys to Philadelphia Inquirer editor Amanda Bennett, who published one of the cartoons along with a story about the controversy. For her trouble, she has been visited by Muslim protesters who promise to return if the paper doesn't apologize. Bennett deserves not just congratulations, but solidarity from other newspapers that have a fresh opportunity to prove their mettle.
Incensed Iranians are preparing to lob a few cartoon bombs of their own with a Holocaust cartoon competition. Fine. All comers are welcome to the free-speech fray. Far better that we wage the war of ideas with words and images than with bombs and bullets.
That's the beauty of free expression, in honor of which - and as an opportunity to teach - American newspapers surely will print the Iranian cartoons. Won't they?