by Joe Shea
September 7, 2010
THE FIRE THIS TIME
GAINESVILLE, Fla., Sept. 8, 2010, 10:59PM ET -- I drove 385 miles for a 10-minute conversation today with the co-pastor of the church where the Rev. Terry Jones plans to build a bonfire of Holy Korans between 6 and 9 PM on Sept. 11, just after the Florida Gators finish playing the South Florida Bulls in an afternoon game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium a few miles away.
But it was not an interview; I went there to tell Jones something.
Some 15 years ago, in March 1995 - just a few weeks before we started the American Reporter - I threatened to burn a Koran to save the life of a 12-year-old boy. I may be the only person in the world who has stood in Terry Jones' shoes. My threat was posted in an Internet newsgroup called PAKISTAN-L that had a lot of Pakistani intellectuals, lawyers, officials and activists, and it created a firestorm of controversy.
Newsgroups were one of the few means of communicating other than email in that early time of the Internet. There were 20,000 of them at least, and they covered a vast range of topics, which were called threads. As a journalist who had covered Pakistani resident Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Karachi and during the Indo-Pak war peace talks in Simla, up in the Himalayas, and also sent some time with his lovely daughter, the late Benazir Bhutto, my interest in Pakistan had been sparked by matters of war and state.
My presence on PAKISTAN-L was never questioned until a 12-year old boy who'd been caught drawing aimlessly on a wall of a mosque with a Crayon was sentenced to death for it. His attorneys appealed the sentence to the Supreme Court of Pakistan, and it was widely thought the execution would be carried out.
I couldn't bear the idea; in Hollywood, Calif., where I was living then, I worked every day as leader of a community association to keep young boys like that one out of jail and "juvie," and I loved each and every one of them (well, some more than others!). The idea of a boy like those being hung for something so innocent was abhorrent to me; I felt I couldn't let it happen, and had to do something dramatic to stop it.
In 1995, my threat to burn a Koran was taken very seriously, and at one point there was talk of an imam issuing a fatwa against me. If memory serves, more than 183 posts were added to the thread and between them they contained a wide variety of threats, an intermittent but strong undercurrent of concern and compassion for me, and a large number of harsh insults. There was little doubt that the issue was being watched by people at a very high level, who were pretty much the only kind of people who had access to the Internet in Pakistan at the time.
The threats and the compassion kept me awake at night, even as I shrugged off the insults. I was severely tugged and pulled and pushed, I felt, by the very deep and powerful currents I had awakened.
My conversation with Wayne Sapp, co-pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center, was off the record. It turned on the lesson I had learned in 1995, and I was hoping it would be of value to Jones, and possibly save lives.
You see, shortly after the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that the boy could be deported instead of executed, the Islamic extremists who were not yet visible in the world media ambushed a van on its way from a residential apartment building in Karachi to the U.S. Consulate there. Four Americans, all CIA agents, were murdered. I felt very much responsible, even if I seem to flatter myself. The juxtaposition of the events was inescapable to me. I carried that guilt with me to Gainesville this morning.
He was attentive, even as a sneaky CNBC cameraman who'd just done a live shot with Sapp and then turned his attention on me tried to covertly tape us with a Blackberry as we spoke. Sapp did promise that the congregation would pray about the implications of what I'd said and to convey them to the Rev. Jones, who was still preparing himself for events to come.
Sapp and I stood there talking on the steps of the small church, Sapp with a black 40-caliber pistol at his side. CNBC had made a point of having him model it for them, as though he were a movie star showing off a new ring. He took it in stride, without any self-absorption; maybe he'd become accustomed to the cameras - there were eight or nine station trucks with their antenna masts there - but they didn't arouse any showboating in him. He was relaxed, serious, and to the point.
I really felt Jones' predicament. Everyone from Gen. David Petraeus to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Atty. General Eric Holder had denounced him, the latter calling Jones' plan "idiotic," while Clinton settled for "disgraceful." I had watched him get beaten up by daytime anchor Megan Kelly on FoxNews and evening anchor Anderson Cooper on CNN, by NBC's Brian Williams and everyone else in the talking-head media world.
Like those posts on the PAKISTAN-L list that kept me awake, I knew he was wondering what would really happen when he went to set fire to either one or a mountain of 200 Korans he had accumulated. He was trying to hear himself amid a chorus of voices that included even Sarah Palin and all of Gainesville's religious community. It's hard to believe you're right when so many powerful and consequential totems of our society tell the entire nation you're a fool at prime time every night. You have to feel there's something to what they're saying, something that even in your wildest dreams you had not considered.
It was hard for me, too, to insist that the Supreme Court of Pakistan had to choose between their faith and their political and judicial obligations when threats, insults and pleas flooded my mailbox (remember, back then my modem only produced 300 bytes a minute on balky dialup telephone lines). Torn between the gentle and wise and the rude and vicious, I just wanted the situation to be resolved and the boy to live. When he was freed, I wrote "An Apology to Islam," which is the only post left of the entire thread, and it has only that title and none of my other words.
I'm going to say something that I probably should not say, and perhaps that's the difference between me and other reporters and editors. I don't condemn Terry Jones. I don't think his idea is so terrible. My greatest problem with it is that it looks backward and is unfocused.
I would like to see him change his mind about burning Korans altogether, because I know that the murders of those four Americans in Karachi will be repeated many times if goes through with it, and very possibly even if he doesn't, as was the case with me. And, frankly, before I talked at length with Sapp and as he was preparing to talk with CNBC, I looked inside myself and saw a terrible flash, of fire and flame and a soldier running, and a fast-compressed scene of violent chaos; I'd also seen something of the same scene as I woke up this morning. My intuition was reinforced on the way home, when the FBI released a statement saying that it had high confidence that Jones would be attacked at the book-burning or later. I felt that if the book was burned even one day later, it would make a great difference.
If Jones is going to go ahead with the book-burning, I rationalized that he might take a different course. On Sept. 11, as a Christian, he could surrender his plan to burn any Koran and instead say, I have been moved to restrain my desire to do this. Instead, I will burn a Koran the next time a Taliban or al-Qaeda suicide bomber or car bomb kills the innocent in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Israel.
And from my stack of Korans, Jones would say, I will burn one each time thereafter, so that the Taliban and al-Qaeda people who are supposedly so devoted to their holy book must choose between preserving that book and killing other human beings. If they really worship the book, it should not be a hard choice, and if I reinforce it often enough, it will reach them, and they will stop that tactic and search for another. Sapp did not like that idea; we don't want to strategize, he said.
The fact is that if you have something important to say, as I felt I did, you throw it out there and hope for the best. You might even pray about it, as I did afterwards and on the way home.
I ran into a fierce tropical storm that sometimes blinded me on I-75, the main North-South artery between the Georgia border and Miami. As it drowned the roads, Sean Hannity began conducting a live interview with Rev. Jones on the radio. I got a happy surprise.
Where Rev. Jones had been pretty much inflexible about changing his plan, it seemed that he was now listening harder to the folks who opposed him. And more than that, he cracked; he offered a deal. If the people building the controversial Park 51 Islamic center near Ground Zero would move the mosque to another location, he said he would "very seriously consider" abandoning his plan. What he's really saying is that now there is room for negotiation, where there had been none.
Clearly, as the crucial moment approaches, something had changed. And yes, the rain did stop, and as it can only in Florida, a desperately beautiful bright flaming sunset flung itself across the western sky.