God Is Alive but Ill in Gainesville, Florida
by Charles R. Larson
In 1958, Harry Golden, editor of The Carolina Israelite, published a collection of his essays from that newspaper called Only in America. The sub-text? Among other things, our freedoms in America result in strange occurrences, with oddball citizens getting their brief moments of fame for incidents that in other countries would attract no attention. Golden is no longer with us, and it’s unclear whether he would be appalled or fascinated by recent events that have led to media attention for some of America’s biggest losers. Remember Joe the Plumber, who wasn’t really a certified plumber but who was elevated by the McCain/Palin twins to brief stardom? Who can forget his delusions of grandeur, shared only by the politicos who had plucked him from obscurity and, then, quickly tossed him to the wolves once he had served their purpose?
This week, it’s Terry Jones, self-ordained religious deadbeat, who believes that he has God’s cell phone number and—worse—that when he punches in the right digits, God speaks to him and tells him what to do. During the past few days Jones believes that he has been instructed to burn Korans on 9/11. The God of Jones’ Dove World Outreach Center, in Gainesville, is obviously not the same God in whom Muslims believe. Pastor Terry has a huge flock of thirty (though some claim fifty) devoted followers. Before he acquired God’s phone number (unlisted), he was a hotel manager, and he confesses that to make a little extra money he sells furniture on eBay. Trouble is that his plan to burn a couple hundred copies of the holy Koran on 9/11 has elevated him to international stardom, equal to, say, the instant fame of Paula Jones (remember her?)
Jones has such an inflated sense of his own importance that he speaks of himself using the royal “we.” Explaining a sudden change of plans, Jones stated, “This has been for us a very, very difficult, trying time.” Us? Who does he mean? “We have been in much thought and prayer over this whole period. A lot of times we were asked what would it take for us to call this thing off. We have thought it over many times. We felt very concerned that we should do this.”
That was part of Jones’ statement at five o’clock (EST) on Thursday, when he believed that the Islamic Community Center planned for construction near Ground Zero had been called off—a sign from God, he implied, though Jones was unclear about which or whose God he meant. Then five hours later, when he learned that there was no plan to move the Center further from Ground Zero (a mile away? to Las Vegas? to Pitcairn Island?), Jones decided those fifteen minutes of fame—and months, if not years, of havoc for American/Middle Eastern relations—were not sufficient. “Given what we are now hearing, we are forced to rethink our decision,” Jones said. “So as of right now, we are not canceling the event, but we are suspending it.”
Sadly, during these days of the Obama presidency, there are few easy ways to end the crisis that Jones has created by his egomaniacal stupidity. Trying to talk sense with the man obviously won’t work. If these were still the Bush/Cheney years there would be easy solutions: offer him a non-competitive contract to deliver defective goods to our troops overseas, for example. Or, if that didn’t work, extraordinary rendition—a quick kidnapping of Jones followed by his disappearance. But those solutions only belie a sudden nostalgia for the George Bush presidency, when everything was oh, so simple.
Charles R. Larson is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.