I spent most of last week at an academic conference in Tasmania, partly working but mostly watching half a dozen sensible, articulate, educated young ladies get smashed on dollar-a-mouthful wine and fall off the furniture with their tops wide open. In the entire week I saw not a single newspaper, heard no radio and had my TV consumption cut to half a Doctor Who rerun. So it was a surprise when I got home, flicked on the TV and saw a scene almost as alarming as the one in the Sydney delegation's conference suite.
You'll have seen the footage - it's wire-service stuff, from the BBC I think, and both news channels are playing it. This heavily bearded guy in a turban - let's call him George - leaps onto a mate's shoulders waving a Koran, absolutely enraged over The Danish Cartoons. He jumps down and rushes through the crowd towards the Danish embassy in Syria, bug-eyed and screeching with fury. I looked at George and thought the same thing I thought when that girl from Sydney capered on a chair on the balcony, unprotected from a three-storey fall into the rock garden - how can we possibly take this person seriously?
Who gets that upset? I mean really, who gets that upset about anything? When did you last feel that strongly about something? Sydney-girl acted like a hysterical idiot for a clear, obvious reason, albeit a bad one. She'd been drinking for four hours. Do you really think George's opprobrium is entirely born of an unknown stranger's impolite disregard for his religious faith? What's he been given to make him that annoyed?
My guess would be Syria. Syria is a country where one could easily be forgiven for mistaking a newspaper for a government. It's a despicable little despotism run by a fatuous, Saddamesque oligarchy with delusions of grandeur and few scruples about manipulating the faith of the population to serve them. Consequently there is little division between mosque and state. Trying to distinguish self-interested, borderline-apostate clerisy and terrorist secular authorities is a fool's errand. Exactly how seriously you should take your own beliefs is tricky, too. The Syrian Ba'ath Party, cynically promoting radical Islam for its value in their pursuance of continued and expanded power, aren't doing much to clear up the issue. Multiply that by ten and chuck in some Jews to keep things interesting and you've got the Middle East.
In such an environment people can behave in alarming ways. We saw this during the Protestant Reformation, where some of the most learned men of the age straddled the religion/government divide and advocated burning people at the stake for such crimes as disagreeing with their jailors on exactly what communion wafers are supposed to represent. Nowadays, those guys are sitting in church offices quietly pointing out that Popetown - depicting Catholic clerics as corrupt, foully debauched imbeciles - is silly. This time they're right, and putting away the kerosene and matches hasn't made their faith any less genuine or commendable.
George had a Koran, which indicates he can read. Like many squawking morons - Osama, Marilyn Manson, Sydney-girl - he's probably an intelligent guy with a sense of humour and an interesting, constructive hobby. But he lives in a society where, thanks in large part to a government as bad as the teenagers of the western world secretly wish the Bush administration was, the arson of a diplomatic mission is more acceptable than a feeble attempt to amuse through the oafishly transgressive depiction of religious figures. Indeed, given how enjoyable it can be to join a crowd espousing a fashionable truism (consider the manifold big smug grins at the anti-American protests of 2003), George may even have been having fun raving about drinking infidel blood. This is not a healthy society. Compare it to the angry but basically peaceful and certainly justifiable protest by Muslims in Auckland.
George provides, in short, one of the most compelling microcosms I've ever seen of the argument that the real issue in the War On Terror is an internal problem within Islam. Also that the Islamic world needs help. Imagine how much smoother the Reformation might have gone if there had been a third party going around spanking firebrand clerics and telling autocratic monarchs to take a hike. Sure, some innocent kids get caught in the crossfire, but as far as groups like al-Qaeda seem to be concerned, that's what they're there for. And it won't necessarily be worse than leaving these guys to their own devices. By the time anyone paused for breath in the Reformation, a quarter of the population of Germany had been rubbed out.
The production and publication of The Danish Cartoons was insensitive and stupid. It sprang from the same juvenile drive for attention-seeking misbehavior that leads people to publish 'offensive issues' of student magazines and attend Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings in costume. Such behavior is irritating in children and deplorable in adults and everybody involved should feel ashamed. Apart from quandaries of ideological sensitivity, it's thrown us into yet another of these palsies of navel-gazing about free speech, which may be necessary but get really boring after the first two hours of Morning Report.
And the media organizations covering the brouhaha should probably have a rethink about how they're doing so. There's a relatively simple reason the Middle East pickle is always in the news. Islamic grief is telegenic. Whack an Israeli and you get a funeral. Whack a Palestinian and you get, visually speaking, a suburb full of foreigners in silly costumes ululating and beating their breasts and roaring for vengeance. On TV that has a rather sordid, voyeuristic entertainment value. Certainly, George gave me the same twinge of mingled amusement and self-reproach that I got when I noticed Sydney-girl schmoozing onto a female roommate. As I say, it's not entirely their fault they look so silly, but if outfits like the BBC want to keep broadcasting this footage they better not start criticizing the way True Lies and Black Hawk Down depict Muslims again.
In any case, I'm sure George isn't behaving like that now. He's probably at work. Sydney-girl is - I last saw her in flannel pajamas and a hangover grump as I left to catch my flight, but her conference presentation betrayed a woman of commendable academic dedication. I doubt that George differs from her very much, except that he can't catch a plane home.
Everybody makes a public spectacle of themselves sometimes. And sometimes, just sometimes, they have an excuse, though it's usually best to avoid it, and get help doing so if you can. Sydney-girl enlisted the help of Jetstar, which took her home to her boyfriend, tutoring and thesis. Whose help will George call on? I suggest the Marines.