Koran Burning: Taking a Cue from Osama bin Laden?

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John Raoux / AP

Terry Jones, at the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla.

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When al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, people began to take notice — especially when President Clinton responded with a panicky fusillade of cruise missiles aimed in bin Laden's general direction. But that was nothing compared with the epic notoriety the al-Qaeda leader would earn when 19 of his men in hijacked airliners brought down the World Trade Center and trashed the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, killing almost 3,000 Americans on home soil.

Suddenly, bin Laden and his little band became the living incarnation of America's worst nightmare — the President of the United States literally declared war on him, although he commanded no divisions, held no territory and had precious few visible assets. The al-Qaeda leader dominated the U.S. national-security conversation for years after those attacks, even though his movement never came close to matching its grotesque feats of 9/11 again.

Terrorism's basic device is "propaganda of the deed" — a marginal group of extremists can briefly overcome its deficiencies in real power and presence through spectacular acts of violence that draw the public's attention, enabling the group to air its grievances and build its "brand." That's how bin Laden managed to convince Americans, although not the overwhelming majority of the world's Muslims, that he was the leader of a global Islamist rebellion.

Terry Jones isn't planning any violence, although who knows what might be unleashed on a day when a man of the cloth is sanctifying as a Christian act the torching of that which Muslims hold dearest. But the pastor's bonfire scheme is clearly his nonviolent version of "propaganda of the deed," designed to stoke the fires of Muslim-Christian enmity like bin Laden tried to do. And, just as it did for bin Laden — and Johnny Rotten too — the resultant media coverage and attention from the powerful is what is allowing Jones to present himself as a far more significant figure than he really is.

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