It's come to this: channel surfing this morning I landed at MSNBC just as the "Morning Joe" panel was discussing the for-now suspended Qur'an burning in Gainseville, and I heard Pat Buchanan, no friend of Islam and as a paleoconservative presumably distrustful of executive power, recommend that the President invoke his authority as Commander-in-Chief to prevent the burning, should the situation require prevention, on national-security grounds, leaving the constitutionality of such action to be decided at a later time. Buchanan, not likely normally to offer favors to Democrats, suggested that Obama's approval ratings would rise rapidly if he took such action. I'm not sure about that, but I'm not unsure enough not to be chilled a little by the idea.
I wonder, however, whether the Gainseville saga hasn't taught Americans a little lesson about collective responsibility. Most of us don't like the idea normally, I suspect, because as individualists we feel that innocents shouldn't suffer for other individuals' misdeeds. The suggestion from Gen. Petreus that the troops would suffer for Rev. Jones's stand may actually have made people look at the distinction between personal and individual responsibility a little differently. I've been concerned that there'd be a backlash in Jones's favor based on Americans' resenting the fact that once again a free man might back down because Muslims made a stink. That might still happen, but it probably won't be for Jones's benefit. But at the same time, the Gainseville episode has thrown idealism against fact in a way that may have jolted our moral complacency. Americans may think that no other person should be held responsible for Jones's antics (or Fred Phelps's, if it comes to that), but we also seem newly convinced that someone will hold the rest of us responsible for a fellow American, whether we think that's right or not. The difference was probably made by our readiness to believe that someone would hold us all responsible. Without recommending that anyone emulate radical Islamism, I propose that our sense of collective responsibility in other matters might be more strongly felt if we also felt more strongly that those responsibilities, too, would be enforced. The sort of collective responsibility on which republics arguably depend is not some natural element or inherent facet of conscience. It has to be called into being and kept in being by people conscious of our mutual dependence and accountability. That necessary consciousness has gone slumbering lately, but the Gainseville story might have awakened it slightly.
Update, 2:45 p.m. While Buchanan was declaring a national emergency against him, Rev. Jones was working the morning talk-show circuit on the broadcast networks, appearing on all three programs. His storyline remains as I left it last night: the burning is suspended, not definitively canceled, and he's still pissed at Imam Musri for "lying" to him. He seems unmoved by the prospect of violent reactions should he burn the books, nor by the violence that has already occurred in some places. In Jones's view, it all proves his point about Islam's inherent violence, about which he declares himself more convinced than ever. He has told interviewers that all depends on whether Imam Rauf will receive him in New York tomorrow. Rauf says no such meeting is planned, nor should he feel pressure to plan one. His issue, Park51, has nothing to do with Jones's threats and Rauf is within his rights to resist all attempts at linkage. Meanwhile, from Afghanistan President Karzai opines that the "humiliation of the holy book represents the humiliation of our people." It's hard to begin detailing how wrong that sounds. No book should be so sacred to anyone. Such a confession only humiliates Hamid Karzai, just as the burning, if it happens after all, will only humiliate Terry Jones.