Violence spurred by symbol worship a shallow fight
In a world of often very intentional and sometimes random symbols, we can almost always agree on which are the important ones and which are meaningless.This Saturday, the 2006 Winter Olympics will be symbolized by Neve and Gliz. Neve is an amorphous (female?) snowball, her name “synthetic, simple, with a soft and elegant sound.” Gliz, another fantasy name, is an amorphous (male?) iceball, his name has a “fresh, compact, sharp-edged sound,” intended to express “energy, passion, innovation, and entertainment.”As symbols, Neve and Gliz will follow their predecessors into obscurity. Who remembers the symbols of the Salt Lake City Olympics or Phevos from the Athens games? Did anyone take Olly, Syd and Millie to heart after the 2000 Sydney games, or hold Sukki, Nokki, Lekki and Tsukki of the 1998 Nagano games in the sort of esteem that their designers felt they deserved, to say nothing of the weasel named Snowple, the original but failed first symbol of those same games?
Political and religious symbols, by contrast, we take to heart. There are many who would take a bullet than see Old Glory mocked, mangled or mishandled. Ben Franklin wanted the national bird to be a turkey, a bird he considered “stately” as well as fastidious. Nonetheless, we revere the bald eagle, a carrion eater and scavenger that symbolizes in the uncritical mind’s eye of most Americans how we stand in this world.As for religious symbols, it is a curiosity that the New Testament does not contain a description of Jesus Christ. The source material for the beatific, olive-skinned man with the long curly hair we commonly identify as Christ comes from a Roman governor of the time, although most depictions omit his mention of Jesus’ forked beard. We also don’t know how tall Christ was. We assume he was tall, but the odds are as good that he could have looked Danny DeVito in the eye.And while the American flag can cause blood to be shed, mocking and belittling Christ elicits nary a raised eyebrow. On Comedy Central’s South Park, Christ hosts a talk show on public access television and is portrayed as something less symbolic than the son of God. Over the years, Christ has appeared in movies, books, and plays, and his name is often used as invective, as a curse.
In the Middle East, the situation is reversed. The Syrian flag, which has not one but two eagles, can be run up a flagpole or used as a beach towel with equal facility. Mohammed, however, would never be a character on an animated series. Like Christ, there is no description of Mohammed in the texts of Islam. And unlike Christ, no uniform characterization of what he probably looked like has taken hold, to appear on greeting cards, placemats and commemorative plates.Nor is such a thing likely to happen. Last year, 15 people died in Afghanistan in riots protesting the desecration of the Koran by American soldiers, while in this country, the government finances “art” where pages of the Bible are used as toilet paper. The Syrians, the Lebanese, the Jordanians and others torching Danish embassies in protest of the publication of a tasteless but valueless cartoon of Mohammed are fighting in defense of a powerful symbol, a key to their religion. Americans no longer fight for religious symbols, we fight for political ones. In the Middle East, they still are fighting and dying, as we did two centuries ago, over religion and religious symbols with not a drop of blood shed for mortal political ones.
The fighting can only end when enough people stop fighting over the symbols themselves and look instead to what the symbols, Mohammed and our Constitution, Christ and the Koran represent: Individual freedom and responsibility, obligation to God and each other, and the preservation of every life, right or wrong.Marc Carlisle writes a Thursday column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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