He's an activist who has used the Internet to fight for what he believes in. He is a member of civil society committed to living in truth. He doesn't live in Cairo or Tunis or Damascus. He doesn’t live in an oppressive society at all, unless you consider Gainesville, Florida an oppressive place. Instead of setting himself on fire, like Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, the preacher Terry Jones has set fire to a book, the Qur'an. It wasn’t a very original idea – the first emperor of China burned books and so did the Nazis – but then, neither is self-immolation.
What might in another age have been an ignored act of ignorant extremism has become, thanks to the magic of the Internet and its transfer of the means of production to the e-proletariat, an international scandal. It has been said, ad nauseum, that the flapping of a butterfly's wing in Tierra del Fuego can cause a tsunami thousands of miles away. This Butterfly Effect has to be updated: the flapping of an obscure man's tongue can send winds of destruction thousands of miles away.
The preacher Terry Jones and his dwindling flock have followed the advice attributed to Margaret Mead that has inspired so many progressive activists: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
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Well, “thoughtful” might be a stretch when it comes to Jones. The preacher admits that he broke his promise back in September to foreswear such a literary auto-da-fe. And he has no regrets that his act led to angry mobs killing at least 20 people in Afghanistan. “We’re not big debaters. We’re not very well-educated,” his son Luke told The Washington Post. “We’re just simple people trying to do the right thing.”
In our era of Palindrones, admissions of ignorance are what pass for heartfelt authenticity.
Not that the big debaters and the well-educated have necessarily done any better. Before we rush to condemn Jones, whose Jed Clampett countenance seems straight out of Central Casting, let’s remember the source of so much destruction in the Muslim world. The Pentagon doesn’t burn Qur'ans, except by accident as collateral damage. Rather, the Pentagon is in the business of burning countries (to save them, naturally).
It was Stalin who said that the death of one man is a tragedy while the death of a million is a statistic. Applied to the Terry Jones controversy, the attack on a single Qur'an is a tragedy while the attack on millions of Muslims is a foreign policy.
Frankly, I would prefer that crowds in the Muslim world came together in angry, peaceful protest not when Terry Jones issues his video plea for attention, but when the U.S. president submits the annual budget proposal for military spending. Burning a Qur'an is a geopolitical stupidity to be sure, but the bigger stupidity is to spend nearly $700 billion a year on a military that's still ready to fight last century's wars against adversaries that no longer exist. Since 2002, the United States has provided about $50 billion in reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan, and the Obama administration has requested another $20 billion. Sounds like a lot of money? Not according to Pentagon math. That’s the exact figure that the Pentagon wastes in one year, according to a recent Government Accountability Office audit. And the United States has devoted five times that amount on destroying the country to begin with.
A good chunk of Pentagon money goes toward U.S. bases in the Arab world. “The Pentagon’s 2010 Base Structure Report, for example, lists 662 overseas bases but fails to include the 411 bases in Afghanistan, the 88 remaining bases in Iraq, or sites in Qatar and other countries where U.S. military personnel are stationed,” write Foreign Policy In Focus contributors Christine Ahn and Sukjong Hong in Bring War Dollars Home by Closing Down Bases. “Maintaining and constructing all U.S. bases cost American taxpayers $41.6 billion in 2010, according to Undersecretary of Defense Dorothy Robyn.” And that figure doesn't cover all the costs of the personnel on those bases and their high-priced weapon systems.
The United States is the worst offender in terms of military spending. Yes, the president has embraced nuclear abolition. And, as FPIF contributors Wilbert van der Zeijden and Susi Snyder point out in Nukes in Europe: Coming Home Soon, “U.S. diplomats in Brussels are quite openly denouncing the relevance of the tactical nuclear weapons for current and future NATO defense and deterrence policy and posture.”
But overall, Washington is responsible for nearly half of all global military expenditures, which totaled over $1.5 trillion in 2009. Most other countries have been on military spending sprees as well, with the global total increasing for the last dozen years. Terry Jones is practically alone in his mania. Attendance at his church is down; even members of his family have deserted him. When it comes to military spending, on the other hand, the whole world seems to be gripped by delusions of martial grandeur.
It's time to end the geopolitics of stupidity. On April 12, people in more than 35 countries and dozens of cities in the United States will participate in the first-ever Global Day of Action on Military Spending. From Alaska to Brisbane and from Oslo to Cape Town, we will demand that the world dial back the military madness and devote resources to the real threats facing the planet: climate change, global poverty, nuclear proliferation. Get involved today by finding an event near you, starting one yourself, joining our Facebook page, or following our Twitter feed.
Here in Washington, DC, we’ll gather in front of the White House at noon on April 12 for poetry, puppetry, and protest. We won’t burn any books. But we might just beat some swords into ploughshares. Even Terry Jones might appreciate the biblical reference. On April 12, let's show both Jones and the Pentagon that a group of thoughtful, committed people can indeed change the world.