There's hardly a reporter in the land who, late at night after the presses have rolled on a story that is then too late to change, hasn't had that terrible feeling of doubt that maybe he has gotten something wrong. We have encountered seasoned newspapermen and women who have gone to bed with that feeling every time they've written through long careers. And we're not inclined to get up on our high horse over the error of Michael Isikoff and Newsweek in respect of the magazine's May 9 report that some American interrogators at Guantanamo Bay flushed pages of the Koran down the toilet. We have long had the sense that the press has been awfully quick to cast aspersions on the administration's conduct of an extraordinarily complex and dangerous war. But the magazine has said it was in error, the consequences were unintended, and they are not the only troubling aspect of this affair.
Indeed, the Bush administration has been so quick to condemn this particular press blunder that it's in danger of committing a blunder of its own. "Disrespect for the holy Koran is something the United States will never tolerate," Secretary of State Rice said last week. It seemed only an afterthought when the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, yesterday made a meek plea for religious leaders to refrain from inciting violence, as if this bout of chauvinistic rage were entirely understandable. Why do we assume these riots were inevitable, especially since it follows a pattern? Every spring since the liberation of Kabul, the Taliban has ginned up anti-American crowds in Afghanistan and Pakistan using pretexts real and imagined. This year the pretext was 10 sentence column in Newsweek.
It would have been nice if our secretary of state acknowledged that it is every American's right to voice all kinds of opinions in respect of all kinds of religious texts. This is a fact the rioters know full well. It is no doubt one of the reasons they hated America long before the Newsweek article went to press. Ms. Rice is a brilliant individual, but she - and a number of other individuals in the administration - are reacting to the Newsweek imbroglio in a way that comes close to pandering to the sensibilities of our Islamist enemies. If there is one lesson we should have learned from the recent developments in the Middle East, it is that there is a large constituency that rejects the narrow sectarianism of those most visibly offended by the alleged Koran incident.
The last message America needs to send to the Islamic world is that it is acceptable for Salafist leaders to gin up deadly riots over errors in the press, and in the same sermon implore worshippers to kill infidels. It was only a few years ago that the Taliban was blasting Buddhist statues out of the side of a mountain. No one in America - or China or elsewhere - rioted. The Pentagon is certainly entitled to excoriate Newsweek for maligning American soldiers with a story that clearly was not fully reported out. But it would be a better use of Pentagonian outrage were the Defense Department to warn President Musharraf that the next shipment of F-16 spare parts won't come until he addresses the hostile activities of extremist madrassas and replaces them with schools that don't teach young men that the holy Koran provides a license for suicide murder.
Nor are we convinced that this episode is simply another chapter in the story of how the mainstream press is unprofessional or anti-American. Mr. Isikoff is a terrific reporter. It'll be illuminating to hear more from his source and why he would misremember what he said, 11 days after the story was published and the Pentagon spokesman launched a probe. It wasn't the first time the allegations had been reported. The story seems to fit a larger narrative of how guards and interrogators at America's detention facilities have sought to pry information from detainees by using their religion against them. When the wounds of the horrific attacks were still fresh, many Americans began contemplating creative ways to humiliate our pious enemies.
We do not condone the desecration of the Koran, but how quickly people forget. Already, some have called on the president to issue a formal apology. Arab leaders are calling for an independent Pentagon investigation. The White House has called on Newsweek to investigate its own practices. And the Web logs are calling for Mr. Isikoff to be fired. As the Washington bureau chief for al-Hayat, Salameh Nematt, told us Monday, there is a double standard here. "I would like to see Arab and Muslim leaders openly condemning the terror masters from bin Laden to Zarqawi to others who are not only killing non-Muslims but fellow Muslims. These leaders are not saying anything about them," he said. All of which is to say that this story is one on which to keep one's newspaper wits, as it could yet take - as, say, the Valerie Plame story took - some surprising turns.