Frank Rich's latest attempt at profundity, as usual, falls in on itself, ending with the same strident yet oddly meager defense of media infallibility and the same ancient, tired indictment of total knavery on the part of the Bush Administration. Reading Rich has become an almost painful exercise, not because of want of talent, he is certainly an able writer, but for his growing and embarrassing lack of rational criticism of the current government.
Rational criticism is what we, the vast faceless mass of news consumers not privy to the machinations of media cognoscenti and administration barkers deserve, yet rarely demand. Instead, we either buy the plaintive sniping of the New York Times editorial page (to which Mr. Rich has returned from the curious environs of the Arts & Leisure section) as legitimate dogma, or blindly accept administration spin as what must be so, solely for the reason that it has said it is so.
Sadly, the confusion on the administration is mirrored by the malaise on the country's editorial pages, leaving those of us without the predisposition to accept or distrust either to wade through a growing sediment of manufactured news, recycled stories and outright obfuscation. It doesn't matter that both the media and the Bush Administration habitually hide facts that are harmful to their argument and seize upon missteps as evidence of the other side's utter depravity. What matters now is that both the media, here represented by Mr. Rich, and the government, in the presence of Scott McClellan, are singing a discordant harmony on the matter of what to do about Islam.
Rich records Mr. McClellan's recent protestations that the US Military, for what reason we are not told, "go[es] out of their way to make sure that the Holy Koran is treated with care," as if "Koran abuse" is limited only to those who add water, while the more heinous "abuse" is perpetrated by those who use the holy narrative as justification for a resumè of some of the world's most horrific crimes. Here Rich has it correct. The president would do well to instruct his acolytes to quit the mush-mouthed talk of respect for Islam and instead make the unequivocal statement that the United States will honor Islam the very second Muslims do. What was missing from Secretary of State Rice's recent comments was not that Koran desecration was against policy, but that even if it was, Muslims had better get with the 21st Century program and cease the pagan-like worship of an inanimate object.
In today's Dubai, home to cutting-edge resort design and prestigious golf and tennis tournaments (in which, we presume, women sometimes wear shorts or tennis skirts) it is still unlawful to be allowed entry into the country if one's passport is stamped by Israeli Customs. Will keeping the pages of an odd Koran or two dry really change the rancid philosophy that holds 1.5 billion people in a death grip of shame, perversion and hatred?
Yet Mr. Rich can't let himself go that far, because that would actually serve to put him to the right of this administration even as it would install him directly in the center of American public opinion. Those complaining about Koran abuse see the latest yawning episode as either a shameful display of America's arrogance and disrespect for the world's second largest religion or one more foul-up by a government and its military that only serves to make the fight harder.
Nonsense. The other two Abrahamic religions have come to terms with the fact that modern life has ample accommodation for religious practice but will not tolerate discrimination based on one's spiritual proclivities. Of course, both Christianity and Judaism have their radicals; it would be virtually impossible for that not to be so. But only Islam has institutionalized hate and slaughter to the point that massacres and bombings by radicalized Muslims hardly surprise anymore. What is so sensational and troubling about abuses in American-run military prisons is that Americans thought that we all were past the era when deviants were given the keys to jail cells.
What demonstrates the country's collective values are not that these crimes occurred. In our most bucolic and seemingly pristine communities there still, and likely always will, resides an element of human darkness and turpitude. What presents America's striving to fairness and protection for those who would fight to abolish it, is illustrated by Mr. Rich's own words. He says:
Even with all that evidence off the table, there is still an overwhelming record, much of it in government documents, that American interrogators have abused Muslim detainees with methods specifically chosen to hit their religious hot buttons. A Defense Department memo of October 2002 (published in full in Mark Danner's book "Torture and Truth") authorized such Muslim-baiting practices as depriving prisoners of "published religious items or materials" and forcing the removal of beards and clothing. A cable signed by Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez called for interrogators to "exploit Arab fear of dogs." (Muslims view them as unclean.) Even a weak-kneed government investigation of prison abuses (and deaths) in Iraq and Afghanistan issued in March by Vice Adm. Albert T. Church III of the Navy authenticated two cases in which female interrogators "touched and spoke to detainees in a sexually suggestive manner in order to incur stress based on the detainees' religious beliefs."
Emphasis mine. These incidents, and others including Abu Ghraib, came about not because of intrepid Rather Peabody winning reporting, but of internal military probes. Indeed, the Times' big story about Afghan prison abuses this past week is from an investigation on crimes that were committed two-and-a-half years ago. It also may be instructive that with all the evidence now in the press of actual deaths due to torture, no matter how few, Mr. Rich chooses to list as most reprehensible the withholding of "religious items" or the shocking crime of requiring a shave or the, granted, odd use of sexually suggestive manner. One assumes that the withheld religious items may have included a Koran, which it has been noted, becomes defiled the very instance an infidel, that's you and me, touches it. This begs the question that since the book has already been abused by the touch of an unclean hand, what's the difference if it turned up in a latrine? Are there degrees of defilement in Islam? I don't know and am not inclined to find out.
What bugs Mr. Rich is that interrogators used inmate's religious nuttery as a way of breaking them down. Given that radicalized Muslims have been characterized by mainstream adherents as having perverted Islam's tenets and practices, wouldn't poking that particular sore spot be a useful and legitimate questioning tactic?
But so what? says Mr. Rich. Newsweek may have botched a story, but Colin Powell lied to the UN (which if true would be a delicious irony) about Iraqi WMDs even though figures from Bill Clinton to Vladimir Putin agreed with Powell at the time. Rich hasn't yet gone out on the limb to publish how many other news organizations have agreed with Newsweek and Michael Isikoff, but the combatants are still gathering for this particular fight.
For the administration's part, it could come up with better responses to debauched newsweeklies than the same sinister "people should watch what they say" routine from stiffs in the cabinet. If crimes have been committed, and if Geneva Conventions have been violated, the government has no option but to prosecute unless it has decided to abrogate the treaty. It is of no value to state that the US alone takes the treaty seriously only to not take it seriously when we get into hot water. However, it is a sign of military accountability and honor that prisoner abuse has been, is and will be punished under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
There have always been criminals in all militaries since armies began assembling to kill the sovereigns' enemies. Presumably, there is no more or less a percentage present than in the populace at large. So it would stand to reason that the armed forces has an element that will inevitably land in the stockade or brig or whichever prison that particular service employs. There indeed have been military cover-ups in the past, but again no more so than in the civilian government. Mr. Rich shamefully utilizes that yippie rhetoric that the military is bad, man, and all that he needs is to utter it for it to be so.
But all this is only a means to confuse the real and pressing issue facing the media, government and military. This issue is not who is most honest and who has what agenda, but what is to be done about Islam. No one from any institution of American life has as yet enunciated the dangers of failing to demand that Muslims the world over take control of their religion and either reform or eliminate those that would destroy a centuries-old spiritual path that boasts peaceful adherents in every country on earth, a tradition of scientific and cultural innovation and at least, a history of tolerance and peaceful respect of other religious practices.
When the president tosses yet another off-handed "Islam is Peace" remark he does no service to the thousands who have been slaughtered and oppressed so "peacefully." When the media refuses to use certain words (e.g. "terrorist") for fear of insulting Muslims and seeming to be on the side of the US government, thus inciting yet another Islamist riot, it hardly demonstrates an understanding of the stakes in this fight. Neither the government nor the media wish to call out the foe, no matter that that very same foe yells in our face each and every day what its intentions are.
We may be winning or losing this war; it's getting harder each day to tell. But if we lose, it will not be because the enemy is superior in strength, morality or guile. It will be because we have failed to take the threat with the seriousness and dead calm that an existential crisis demands. We have failed to identify the enemy and in doing so have turned the fight in on ourselves. The current spat between the government and the media would make for lively entertainment in another time. As we grow towards what is likely to be a showdown with thousands, maybe millions, of radicalized religious fanatics it might be a good idea for us to come to some agreement on whom we fight before it is too late.
The majority of tolerant, moderate Muslims must do the same. It is incumbent on both the media and government that they explain that the enemy we face is their enemy also. And it is of the greatest import that Muslims finally decide that they will indeed take their religion, and the internal threat to its very survival, seriously. An army of free Muslims mobilized alongside that of the West would be an overwhelming force in the fight against Islamofascism. It has yet to be enlisted or even contemplated. We must demonstrate to our Muslim allies that we take the threat to their religion and culture as serious as we take the same threat to ours, and that we expect them to do the same. Until Muslims show respect for their own ways, the West will be impotent to force a surrender.
We can no longer act as mercenaries in service to the Caliphate. Governments of the West have no choice but to press Islam's faithful to make a choice between the welcome of the community of nations, or the disintegration of mankind's hold on the planet. We must be honest, fierce and fair in deadly fashion.
Likewise, our media has a similar choice. America will again take the press seriously when it takes itself seriously. That would mean publishing only vetted and well-sourced stories, refraining from employing the smokescreen of false impartiality and at last acknowledging that there in fact is an enemy to fight and it is not George Bush's administration.
But the media must also stop treating Muslims as if they were curiously exotic pets instead of the full flesh-and-blood humans that they are, replete with the same dignity and frailty of all of humanity and not a subject of a simple, Disney-fied travelogue.
Islam has suffered from those who wish to pervert its teachings and traditions into a death cult bent on the forceful conversion of all to its rancid philosophy. Will Islam finally respond? On what side will it fight? And will we know before it is too late?