By Jerry D. Rose
As Gainesville Florida approaches its ground zero day in the confrontation of Muslims and Christian fundamentalists, local people are on in a tizzy about what should be the reaction of its citizens who are of neither of these groups to the impending burning of copies of the Koran by the tiny (50 member) fundamentalist church, the Dove Outreach Center, on Saturday September 11. When the impending event was first announced by Dove, the immediate reaction of the local liberal community was to plan to protest the event at the scene of its perpetration, and that approach is still being planned by some, including a group from Students for a Democratic Society at the University of Florida.
Soon after this knee-jerk reaction, second thoughts began to appear, in the perceived likelihood of violence ensuing between Dove demonstrators and the protesters. Local peace groups and local ministers began instead to organize interfaith meetings of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others of all faiths and “no faith,” in a demonstration of community solidarity in the face of the breach in the harmony of a city notable for its appreciation of diversity: racially, religiously and in terms of sexual orientation (the city just elected its first openly gay mayor and has a number of elected and appointed black office-holders including a black Chief of Police.)
Both approaches—protest and prayer—have their place in social action, but also their limitations. Never a protester myself against the likes of the Viet Nam war, I was deeply skeptical of the effects on our decision-makers about the war when a group of students on my campus, the University of Wisconsin, massed to demonstrate against the war at the foot of the Lincoln statue on Bascombe Hill. What was that going to accomplish? And so with the good-hearted and constructive efforts to promote interfaith or interracial understanding and tolerance. It is one thing to sit in a seminar or prayer circle with people of other religions or races; it is a quite another to carry those kumbaya circles of solidarity into our everyday tendency to flock together with those of our own feathers with whom we have developed comfortable familiarity. Whether the method is protest or prayer, my skepticism runs toward a feeling that such demonstrations of solidarity with minorities are basically opportunities for people to feel better about themselves for having “made the effort” during a special time of heightened awareness, rather than producing any long-term changes in the way people conduct their everyday lives.
But all that is sociological speculation, based hopefully on some careful observation of human behavior. In the current situation of the Koran-burning planned for Gainesville, protest and prayer can almost recede into a state of mutual irrelevance to the really consequential results of the impending burning. My perspective is this: whether people protest, pray or (as some downstate Muslim parents told their UF children, just “leave town” for the weekend), the larger reality is that these events are a dire threat to the public’s safety, and that public officials should NEVER allow the burnings to occur at all. The Dove Center applied for a permit to hold the public burning and was denied the permit by the city; but said they would proceed with their plans without the permit. In my mind that is a defiance of public authority and justifies the authorities in arresting the would-be perpetrators, holding them in “protective custody” for the weekend if not placing any charges against them. I say this as a committed civil libertarian, but no proponent of freedom of speech and other forms of expression can correctly claim that these rights allow people seriously to threaten public safety. It is easy to paint a lurid if all-too-accurate picture of the nature of this threat. A fundamental Christian church burns the most sacred book of 1.57 billion people in the world. Violent protests of Muslims against impending action in Gainesville have already occurred in Indonesia and India.
Now the press of the world—not only the cameras of CNN and BBC but innumerable YouTubers with hand-held cameras, capture the images of the burning and broadcast them all over the world. Perhaps the violent reaction doesn’t occur in Gainesville but in Amsterdam or Istanbul. But even Gainesville itself will be extraordinarily vulnerable on this coming Saturday, when some 90,000 people will be massed in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (a mile from where I live) for a U.F. football game. The police are promising “checkpoint” control of traffic in the region of the Dove event, several miles away, but can they protect from the temptations of a suicide bomber to attack such a mass of “Christians” in one place?
Bottom line of this dire picture of the threats of the Dove action to the people of Gainesville and the world: this is a totally plausible if nearly unthinkable result if these provocative acts are carried out. No amount of protest and no amount of prayer are going to stop these consequences from being realized. The police of Gainesville and the Sheriff of Alachua County must act pre-emptively to avert the provocative events from occurring. The failure to do will be a gross failure of law enforcement officials, but also of elected political officials, from those of City Hall in Gainesville to those in the White House. If there were anything resembling a “leader” as our President, that person would see THIS grave threat to the national security (much greater than some of those for which torture itself is deemed as “necessary” to avert) and would pick up the phone, dial Gainesville, speak directly to Mayor Craig Lowe, and urge him to do his duty to protect the public. Or have we yet another leader so removed from reality and concern for the people that he instead reads pet goat stories to school children as the country may well be going up in flames?