From the start, we've been warned of the catastrophic consequences of converting the war against terrorism into a war of religions or cultures. "The war on terrorism is not a clash of civilizations," President Bush has declared.
But there's a certain vicious symmetry being played out in the press these days -- pointing down just that disastrous path. On Thursday, Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad declared at the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit in Singapore that "The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million, but today the Jews rule the world by proxy. They got others to fight and die for them."
Just the night before, NBC News, and the following day the L.A. Times, reported certain ear-catching declarations by Army Lt. General William G. "Jerry" Boykin. Dressed in his full-dress Army uniform, Boykin told an Oregon religious group in June: "Satan wants to destroy this nation, he wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army." In another speech, according to L.A. Times military analyst William Arkin, Boykin showed slides of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and North Korea's Kim Jong Il, and asked, "Why do they hate us? The answer is because we're a Christian nation. We are hated because we are a nation of believers." Our "spiritual enemy," he went on, "will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus."
Before another religious group in Florida, Boykin described how his Delta Force commandos in Mogadishu finally tracked down one of the Muslim rebel leaders because "I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol."
Boykin is not just any Army general: Last June, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld nominated him for a third star and made him deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, placing him in charge of tracking down the most notorious leaders of the world of terrorism.
The reactions to the speeches of Lt. Gen. Boykin and Prime Minister Mahathir are as instructive as the statements themselves.
Mahathir, 78, is known for his fiery, often racist rhetoric. Predictably, his words were denounced around the globe as outrageously anti-Semitic. He, of course, has no boss, but within a day, Malaysia's foreign minister Syed Hamid Albar, saddled with an impossible public relations task, was doing his best to distance his country from Mahathir's remarks. The prime minister, he claimed, had not been understood: It was important to realize that Islam was not anti-Jewish. "Please forget about anti-Semitism," Syed Hamid told reporters. "Islam has never advocated being anti anybody including the Jews. The only problem with the Jews is when the State of Israel was created."
The brunt of Mahathir's message, in fact, was to urge Muslims to foreswear religious extremism, suicide bombings and violence as futile. They should learn to emulate the Jewish response to oppression, he said. The Jewish people, he argued, had "survived 2,000 years of pogroms not by hitting back, but by thinking." He suggested the use of political and economic tactics, not violence, to achieve a "final victory."
Mahathir, who has been in power for 22 years, is due to step down later this month. Not so Lt. Gen. Boykin.
Also, unlike Mahathir, Gen. Boykin does have bosses: George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.
Now, the U.S. government's reaction to Mahathir's speech was swift and clear-cut: "The remarks are offensive, they are inflammatory, and we view them with the contempt they deserve," a State Department spokesman told reporters.
What about the Bush administration's reaction to Boykin's remarks? Questioned by the press, Donald Rumsfeld pointed out that the war against terrorism is "not a war against a religion." But despite repeated probing from reporters, Rumsfeld claimed he did not know the "full context" of Boykin's remarks. He declined to condemn the general, or even indicate whether he might review the general's words to take possible action.
"There are a lot of things that are said by people that are their views," Rumsfeld said, "and that's the way we live. We are free people and that's the wonderful thing about our country, and I think for anyone to run around and think that can be managed or controlled is probably wrong."
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "There is a very wide gray area on what the rules permit," but, he added, "At first blush, it doesn't look like any rules were broken."
But, facing a mounting storm of protest from key politicians and Muslim groups, the Pentagon finally blinked -- sort of. On Friday morning, the Pentagon announced that, in the future, Lt. Gen. Boykin will curtail his speechmaking; there was also talk that the general himself might appear to explain his position later in the day.
It's doubtful, though, that such actions will quell the outrage. Silencing the public expressions of the new deputy undersecretary for intelligence will do nothing to still his fervid views, religious convictions, and, one assumes, his actions.
In any case, Lt. Gen. Boykin seems certain of his ultimate commander.
As he told the Oregon congregation, "George Bush was not elected by a majority of the voters in the United States. He was appointed by God."