While Rome burned, Nero legendarily fiddled. And while much of the Middle East smoked with Islamic rage over ... cartoons . U.S. senators castigated the Bush administration for an espionage program meant to protect Americans against terrorism, chiefly of the Islamic variety.
The last thing we expect of Congress these days is a sense of proportion. Still, while mobs attack freedom of speech abroad, it's odd to hear senators assail the administration for efforts, of which we so far know little, to safeguard the home front by eavesdropping.
I hope few Americans would be likely to pooh-pooh either concern -- freedom here, freedom abroad. Why, then, isn't our ongoing national discussion of National Security Agency wiretaps a little calmer, a little more patient?
Because that's not how politicians at the national level play any more. Yet, as I say, the timing of the whole thing is odd.
What the mobs surge and seethe about is, on the surface, blasphemy -- disrespect to the deity. The cartoons in question, published in European newspapers, lampooned Mohammed, which you're really not supposed to do if you're Muslim.
Wait, though: The lampooners, and their customers, aren't Muslims at all. My own guess would be, given the secularist climate of modern Europe, that the cartoonists are secularists to a man: indifferent to any god except the truth as they themselves perceive it. Which, come to think of it, is what Westerners usually mean when they talk of free speech. They mean you may be some kind of screwball, but here's the rope -- free speech -- to hang yourself with.
One gets the idea, for some quaint reason, that in Islamic countries, relatively few see things thus. Freedom to express yourself means, in many Middle Eastern venues, the freedom to have your throat cut or your family incinerated or whatnot. It is a point many American policy-makers -- right up to the Oval Office level -- acknowledge with some reluctance. Doesn't everybody want freedom? Ah, no, as it happens. Witness Hamas' triumph in the Palestinian elections; witness the anti-cartoon riots in the Muslim world.
I said "much." I did not, and would not, say that every Muslim home and hovel burns with the hope of establishing the rule of the Koran (whatever that might mean) over the entire world. We should note with some appreciation that Muslim clerics were among those trying this weekend to break up mobs and send the members back home, and that some Muslims perceived in the mobs the presence of "outsiders," uninvited stirrers-up of trouble.
The message of the mobs is all the same plain. That message, directed westward, is: Shut up! Do what we tell you!
We thus have Middle Eastern mobs giving orders to Western governments about the liberties the West supposedly guarantees and the ways (assuming the West knows what's good for it!) those liberties are to be exercised. And not exercised.
In the old gangland days, I believe they called it extortion and blackmail -- properties a million times uglier now, magnified by the power of the Middle Eastern gangs and their cronies everywhere, including Europe, to hit and hit hard. No warnings, no explanation, just the uncorked rage. And the crumbling of exploded buildings and the punishment of human flesh.
All this, I say, while the Senate Judiciary Committee grills officials of the Bush administration about . about a plan to save American lives? Does the Senate have this thing right-side up, or doesn't it? You have to wonder as you watch foreign mobs campaign to bring to heel all violators of their own wishes and ideals.
Who runs any nation -- the mob or the law? Always and everywhere, the question has titillated. Seldom is the answer totally clear: least of all at tortured moments like the present, when so much hangs on rational debate of questions rationally put.
I don't believe I've ever seen our storehouse of rationality so depleted as at present. Well, maybe in the late 1960s. You know what happened then.