Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr., director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), was sure that Osama bin Laden will never be captured or killed. How sure? "I'll bet anyone here a Koran on that," he said.
Fairbanks offered his bizarre wager last Friday to some 200 Washingtonians who had come to hear him and two other experts at a hastily arranged SAIS forum, "How to think about the Afghan-Islamic Terrorist Threat." SAIS is among the more highly regarded schools of its sort, so it was all the more striking that Fairbanks' lesson in thinking about the threat was to approach it with sarcasm and xenophobia.
His was the last of the forum's three presentations. All three participants argued that the wily Osama bin Laden's involvement in the bombing was at best a ruse established by some Middle Eastern country-most likely Iraq-to throw U.S. investigators off track. The first two presentations, delivered by Hillel Fradkin from the American Enterprise Institute and Laurie Mylorie, publisher of Iraq News, were scholarly and persuasive. Both of the others, especially Fradkin, delivered their views in measured tones, and both pleaded with the audience not to equate terrorists who hold radical and distorted Islamic views with peace-loving Muslims both at home and abroad.
Fairbanks, a lanky fellow whose broad smile repeatedly peaked through a thick black beard, offered a similar caveat. He later threw caution to the wind, however, repeatedly cracking wise at the podium. When he arrived a bit late, he apologized with a smile, adding that at least it wasn't as bad as the time in Sicily when he was detained as a suspected terrorist. He appeared oddly amused at his own contention that Arabic grammar is so difficult that it is common to find 60-year-old men still trying to earn their degrees in traditional Islamic schools. During questions and answers with the crowd, he seemed amused at Fradkin's attempt to equate Tuesday's tragedy with a horror movie no one will ever be able to leave. Regarding the horrific video of the crashes that will undoubtedly be shown to many children in the Islamic world, he said, "That's the best recruiting video ever made, I can tell you."
Other times, Fairbanks abandoned the dark humor in favor of inflammatory proclamations. He said that without the opium trade, the people of Afghanistan would starve. But then he threw in: "By the way, they have that opium in warehouses and it will become a weapon if there is a war…" He argued that many people in the Islamic political movement, including Saddam Hussein, were not religious but "out-of-work opportunists." Others are simply Muslim believers who are "incredibly ignorant and easily confused." He based his argument that Tuesday's terrorists/pilots were undoubtedly trained in Islamic armies-not at a Florida flight school-on an e-mail he got from a pilot in Turkey. He called Afghanistan "desperately miserable and medieval or sub-medieval."
The crowd absorbed Fairbanks' act quietly. During the Q&A period, however, as Fairbanks continued throwing out wisecracks and blanket assertions, a thin middle-aged woman in the back row couldn't take it any more. As Fairbanks blithely pronounced that, "Palestinians hate us…," she rose and unleashed a lengthy tirade against him, humiliating him in front of the dumbstruck crowd-and anyone fortunate enough to be watching on C-SPAN.
"Your pathetic attempt at stand-up comedy is completely inappropriate," she shouted after an usher gave her a microphone. She then continued to deride Fairbanks, despite his protests. At one point, the professor actually stood up, pounded the podium with both fists, and shouted, "Quiet!" After getting blasted for his "humor" again, Fairbanks admitted, "Uh, I should not have used the word Koran, but…"
The woman would have none of it. She shouted America needed to understand Islam, and charged that "the road you are taking us on is not taking us there." This drew applause from the audience, and prompted Fairbanks to bellow, "Will someone go get the guard and get this woman removed."
She never did leave. Someone did retrieve the microphone, however, and the panel tried to return to normal Q&A. That never really happened. The other two panelists revisited the issue on their own, and Fairbanks seemed flustered. Eventually the panel broke for lunch. I spoke to the woman at the mike after the fracas. Her name is Cheryl Sukhtian, and she said she had no business card and no particular affiliation. She is an American citizen who has lived in various countries throughout the Middle East over a 30-year period, and she said she simply could not tolerate the professor's bizarre lesson any longer.
Fortunately, the capital is capable of approaching the critical issues it suddenly faces without disintegrating into circus sideshows. A similarly conceived panel at the Brookings Institution, directly across Massachusetts Avenue from the SAIS, let out just an hour before the Fairbanks debacle unfolded. The American Enterprise Institute sponsored a Friday morning forum as well. I can attest personally to the calm, informative tone at Brookings. That will be essential as we progress through this struggle. We face issues that need to be approached aggressively, free of politically correct rubbish. But as Prof. Fairbanks learned Friday, the capital intends to face its issues free of xenophobia as well. Sometimes it may need some help to get back on course. This time, one voice was all it took.