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wThursday, March 14, 2002

THE WAR THAT ALMOST WAS: Now that the angry Muslim e-mails have slowed to a trickle, I finally have time to think and lay out what, hopefully, is my last missive on the subject of what has come to be known as Mecca gate. First of all, my hat's off to National Review Editor Rich Lowry for two things: 1) for doing his damnedest to change the subject and 2) for backing off just in the nick of time. What can I say, the guy's got excellent survival instincts.

Right out of the gate, Lowry tried to get around the substantive criticism of my original piece on The American Prospect Online by seizing on a misattribution of a quote on my part and riding that for all it was worth. He waxed nigh eloquent over my use of ellipses to shorten a disjointed sentence, even though I conveyed what I judged to be the important supposedly-deleted point in the next sentence of my piece. ("[Lowry] also noted the possible deterrent effects of radical Muslims thinking us so palpably crazy that we would reduce their holy city to a pile of glowing cinders.") He claimed that I was lacking something called a "sarcasm detector" (noooo) and, of course, that I had missed the context of his original posts.

That last point first: No I didn't. My piece clearly states that he was writing in response to/speculating about what should be done in the event of a nuclear detonation on U.S. soil. It also makes clear that the "sentiment for nuking Mecca" came from e-mails sent by readers. Had Lowry left it at that, my article wouldn't have been written. But he didn't. Instead he seriously entertained that notion. Notwithstanding his caveat that "This is a tough one, and I don’t know quite what to think," he launched into the following... call it what you will:

"Mecca seems extreme, of course, but then again few people would die and it would send a signal. Religions have suffered such catastrophic setbacks before. As for the Saudis, my only thought is that if we're going to hold them responsible for terrorism, we had better start doing it now, not after an even more catastrophic attack. And, as a general matter, the time for seriousness—including figuring out what we would do in retaliation, so maybe it can have some slight deterrent effect--is now rather than after thousands and thousands more American casualties."

Lowry argued to Lloyd Grove that he was employing "understated sarcasm." If so, it was too understated for most reasonable people to detect. And just because he is now telling anybody who will listen that he does not want to bomb Mecca - and, for what it's worth, I believe him -, that doesn't erase the fact that he lent support to the case for doing so. In an e-mail to me, Lowry explained that he "would have gone into all the reasons not to [nuke Mecca] if I were writing a column on the idea of nuking Mecca, but it was two lines in a web log!"

He requested that I provide more of that famous context in my reply. This I did, quoting the above long paragraph and again reiterating that his speculation about nuking Mecca was contingent upon a nuclear strike of some kind on the U.S. A fat lot of good it did. In his reply (boy this back and forth is getting a bit much but bear with me) Lowry bitches about perceived flaws in the first piece rather than noting that - viola! - the long block quote is included in the second. It still doesn't strike me as any less damning, but who knows, some people might find it exculpatory.

(He also asked, in re the suggestion that he, I stress, only quoted, that the U.S. should nuke any population that cheers in the event of a nuke strike on the U.S., why I didn't attack Glenn Reynolds for having suggested the same thing? Um, I didn't see it but, I'll take his word for it. Bad Glenn, bad!)

Then there is the matter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, the source of most of Lowry's actual grief which he funneled in my direction. In a mass e-mail and on their website, CAIR included selected (and selective) quotations from what Lowry had written and asked members to write in.

Angry Muslims (and others) duly spammed National Review and flooded the office with calls. Since I was on the cc list of places to send e-comments, I got a lot of e-mails. Without doing a count, I'd guess 350, so far. I had to change the "forward" setting at my deviantreadings account so that it didn't crash the other account; the one I prefer to use. The responses were mostly in what I would call the "angry-but-polite" category: expressing outrage, asking for/demanding an apology and then thanking NR for taking the time to read the message.

However, there were a few letters that I, and not a few lawyers, might consider threatening. I posted one earlier and expressed my disapproval but, while we're playing the "for the record" game, for the record, anybody who uses Rich Lowry's stupid comments as an excuse to commit or incite violence ought to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. In fact, should such a thing occur, and I pray to God it doesn’t, I will be at the sentencing hearing arguing for the strictest punishment that could be handed out (though I'm certain that NRnicks would resent my presence there).

I find the fact that I’m contemplating such a possibility to be a truly surreal experience, and not in a good way. When I agreed to do the story last Friday, I envisioned it as a funny piece that would make a serious point about the dangers of excessive warmongering. I think that's what it was, but I never factored in the prospect of hundreds (if not thousands) of angry Muslims. One writer said (and I'm quoting from memory but this isn't the thing that you tend to forget): "Mr. Lowry, Mecca matters more to us than our own lives."

As you can see from the above post, I've thought about this long and deep since Rich dragged me out of bed this morning to yell at me. He also yelled at my editor. Then, suddenly, he decided to drop it. Very wise move on his part.

posted by Jeremy at 5:06 AM