In an extraordinary statement, General Petreus has advised the congregation of a Florida church to reconsider its plan to burn copies of the Qur'an on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. The general claims that the planned demonstration will inflame anti-American feeling in Afghanistan and place the American troops there in even greater danger than they face now. In response, the pastor and representative congregants declare themselves resolved to carry out the conflagration, but implicitly leave open the possibility that during their constant prayer on the subject that God might tell them to stand down.
The concept of a private citizen and his personal responsibility apparently doesn't occur to those Muslims who may punish other Americans, in uniform or not, for the planned action of the Florida yahoos. Few Americans, if any, would accept responsibility for what the Qur'an burners intend -- I know I wouldn't, and I even endorsed their right to do it a few weeks ago. In their tribal minds, so Gen. Petreus assumes, irritable Afghans and Pakistanis will not see a small congregation but rather the entire American people burning their holy book, no matter how many Americans have spoken against the project. Such a reaction would be no different from the American assumption that a mosque near Ground Zero can only be some kind of monument to the Islamist terrorists of 2001. I could argue that the Qur'an burning itself will be another provocation premised on collective responsibility, with the burners spiting the majority of peaceful Muslims in order to reproach the actually offensive ones -- except that I feel pretty certain that the pastor is driven by hate rather than blame. In any event, Muslims and Americans seem trapped in an irrational vendetta that requires each group to make reprisals indiscriminately against members of the other for the acts of quite specific individuals, when ideally those individuals alone should be held to account who have actually offended either group. I should not have to ask or order the Floridian clowns not to stage their circus in order to save my own skin or protect my military representatives from even partly misdirected anger. But if we have to think in terms of collective responsibility for the troubles in the Muslim world and the potential troubles here, then that responsibility extends to Muslims and Americans alike. When conflict has reached this stage, neither side deserves to win or lose; both must change.