Nine years and 15 minutes

by Brian Keaney

Praise Allah.

The planned burning of Korans by a fringe preacher in Florida didn’t happen, but the lunatic who threatened to light the match got his 15 minutes of fame and then some.  When I first heard of how small his congregation is, under 50 members, I began to wonder why he was getting so much attention.

Why were national commentators writing and blabbering on about him on cable news networks?  This should have been a story that was covered by local press, and then maybe picked up by the wires.  It should have been one of those oddball stories you see in a little box to the side, not the main headline.

I think the reason it got so much attention isn’t because it was a notable event in and of itself, though when the president of the United States and General David Petraeus start talking about it, that is sure to get it some attention.  No, I think it fits into a larger narrative in the media and American society today about Islam, and that explains the way a small town preacher ended up with more reporters on his front lawn than parishioners in his pews.

Sizable segments of the American public, and Republicans in particular, believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim – with, wink wink, all that entails.  This is despite the controversy in the waning days of his election about offensive remarks his Christian pastor made from the pulpit.  Hands were wrung and teeth were gnashed over the fact that then-candidate Obama sat in this church for decades and had his children baptized –  Christened, even – by a reverend who made remarks many, myself included, found objectionable.  How soon we forget.

Part of this anger and vitriol we see being spewed towards the president, Muslims, and, before them, immigrants, I think  has to do with the xenophobic tendencies we see arise in this country (and probably elsewhere) during times of economic stress.  This being a particularly bad downturn, we see the anger magnified by that much more.

Someone has to be blamed for all the job losses and suffering we have endured over the past few years.  It certainly couldn’t be our fault for not keeping our skills current enough, or not saving enough money, or believing that dieing industries would provide stable jobs until our retirements when all signs indicated otherwise.  It couldn’t be that Wall Street bankers let us borrow too much money too easily and on usurious terms, and then gambled with the payments we made on those loans.  After all, they are mainly white men.  No, it must be the fault of other people we can’t see, who don’t look like us, don’t speak our language, don’t practice our religion, and don’t have any issues doing jobs that we are too good to do.

As we approached the anniversary of the most traumatic day in most of our lifetimes, Muslims became a focal point for all of the stress, all of the anger, all of the uncertainty in our lives.  How dare they build a cultural center on the same island as the World Trade Center?  Don’t they know this is sacred ground?  Don’t they know that this used to be a Burlington Coat Factory?

Pastor Terry Jones admitted that he’d never opened a Koran before.  He didn’t know what it said.  He couldn’t point to any particular chapter, verse, or even theme that he found objectionable.  He didn’t even care about all that love thy neighbor talk he could find in his own holy script.  No, he was mad as hell and he had to direct that anger somewhere lest it eat away at him.

I was in Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001.  I saw the worst, and, it must be said, the best of humanity on that day.  In addition to the fighter jets buzzing over my head, I also experienced the rally around the flag sentiment that surrounded and pervaded the nation in the days and weeks that followed.

Yesterday, the ninth anniversary of that day, we saw much of the bumper sticker politics that convey trite and empty patriotism common in the days that followed the attacks.  Never Forget.  Home of the Free.  United We Stand.  Yes, united we stand, unless your president is black, you’ve lost your job, or a Mexican moved into the foreclosed home down the street.  Then it’s every man for himself.

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