When Afghan workers at the Bagram Air Base saw our troops put copies of the Holy Quran and other Islamic religious works into a pile of burning trash in a dumpster, they didn’t hesitate. They yelled for them to stop. They ran and “reached into the fire,” according to a Times report, and pulled the burning books out.
When General John Allen, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, heard what had happened, he didn’t hesitate either. He apologized, completely and unreservedly, to President Karzai, his government, “and most importantly, to the noble people of Afghanistan.” He said that it had been a mistake. (“I assure you … I promise you … this was NOT intentional in any way.”) He said that there would be an investigation and that it wouldn’t happen again. He added, “I would like to thank the local Afghan people who helped us identify the error, and who worked with us to immediately take corrective action.” That is, the ones who stuck their hands in the fire.
General Allen made a point of saying that he’d found out about the incident “during the night,” rightly implying that it was something of a nightmare. At Bagram, there was rock throwing and near-rioting. What might there be when a patrol walks into a village? There have been other Quran-related incidents before that have ended in violence, and we’ve become familiar with some of the factors that have marked them: Clumsiness or bad communications; the Karzai government’s self-serving outrage; the way the unanswered question of what, exactly, we are doing in Afghanistan makes it all worse. Maybe we know that we’re not there as crusaders or to wage war on Islam. But as long as we are there, a bag of books sent to a dumpster by mistake can make for a very big fire. (Non-symbolic, and unfixable disasters, like the killing of children in a drone strike, do so even more.) We keep saying that we are in Afghanistan to help. Burning a Quran isn’t helping.
What also does not help a soldier in Afghanistan, or an American anywhere, is the dialogue surrounding Islam in America now. Part of this is the flip side of the Republican Presidential candidates’ competition to see who can most loudly assert his own Christianity, and disparage the President’s. On Tuesday, Willie Geist, of “Morning Joe,” asked Reverend Franklin Graham if he would say categorically that Obama was not a Muslim. “I can’t say categorically, because Islam has gotten a free pass under Obama,”
And this week, it emerged that the N.Y.P.D. had been conducting surveillance on Muslim student groups around the tristate area. The names of students who attended meetings or forwarded e-mails or went on a whitewater-rafting trip with someone who turned out to be on an undercover assignment ended up in police reports, according to an AP report. An investigation of students at Yale got the most headlines, because Yale is far from New York City and because it is Yale. But the AP found that the N.Y.P.D.’s efforts extended to
the University of Pennsylvania; Syracuse; New York University; Clarkson University; the Newark and New Brunswick campuses of Rutgers; and the State University of New York campuses in Buffalo, Albany, Stony Brook and Potsdam; Queens College, Baruch College, Brooklyn College and La Guardia Community College.
It’s not just about students. The AP just won a well-deserved George Polk award for its reporting on the N.Y.P.D.’s broader monitoring of the Muslim community, and Commissioner Raymond Kelly has failed to adequately explain how it came to be that the police in New York, a city that is estimated to have more than three quarters of a million Muslim residents, were shown a training film that portrayed Islam as a deceptive, undermining force.
There was, at least, a partial apology for the training film. The response to the latest reports has been disappointingly inadequate and unrepentant. A spokesman for the N.Y.P.D. said that “students who advertised events or sent emails about regular events should not be worried about a ‘terrorism file’ being kept on them. N.Y.P.D. only investigated persons who we had reasonable suspicion to believe might be involved in unlawful activities.” That is the sort of response that raises the question of what kind of files other than a “terrorism file” that the N.Y.P.D. might keep, and what its definition of “reasonable suspicion” might be.
The N.Y.P.D. has worked hard to keep the city safe since September 11th, in some ways with more insight than federal agencies have managed. That doesn’t mean that it can deal with the serious questions these allegations raise dismissively, or with pique that its good intentions aren’t realized. There is a difference between chasing clues and treating Islam, in and of itself, as a lead. What the N.Y.P.D. did wasn’t Quran burning, but it also didn’t help. It doesn’t safeguard the city, or our democracy, if Muslims in New York—and New Jersey and Connecticut—feel spied on and isolated, or even scorned. And yet when Richard Levin, the President of Yale, sent out an e-mail protesting the surveillance, the Mayor said, “I don’t know why keeping the country safe is antithetical to the values of Yale.” He then made a joke about the things you learn when whitewater rafting.
Bloomberg went on,
We have to keep this country safe. This is a dangerous place. Make no mistake about it. It’s very cute to go and blame everybody and say we should stay away from anything that smacks of intelligence gathering….
Remind yourself when you turn out the light tonight. You have your job because there are young men and women who have been giving their lives overseas for the last two-hundred plus years so that we would have freedom of the press and we go after the terrorists. And we are going to continue to do that. And the same thing is true to those people who work on the streets of our cities.
There is, indeed, a connection between what the N.Y.P.D. represents in a New York neighborhood and what those “young men and women” are fighting for abroad, but it does not, as Bloomberg seems to think, give any of us a pass to forget what America means. Our respect for each other at home is not incidental to our image, and our ability to influence events, in the world at large. We cannot simply talk about our moral force and exceptionalism; we have to live it, above all in our own communities, where the hand that reaches into the fire, to save what needs saving, is our neighbor’s or our own. Pretending a mistake isn’t a mistake doesn’t work here any more than it does in Afghanistan. General Allen realized that; it is strange that Mayor Bloomberg, so far, has failed to. In this case, the values of Yale may be more likely to keep the country safe than the practices of the N.Y.P.D.