09/20/2012 11:02 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

Symbols Matter, But Lives Matter More: Lesson One From the Middle East Uproar

As I watch American flags burn across the Middle East, I am struck by how little emotion it engenders in me, particularly as I compare my reaction to my horror at the murder of our heroes at the Libyan consulate. Don't get me wrong. My heart still swells at the sight of the Stars and Stripes, particularly after I've been out of the country for any length of time. Like most Americans, I sing the Star Spangled Banner loudly, proudly and off-key (though I try my best). I do find the burning of our national symbol disgusting. But I look on the conflagration of our flag as more juvenile and sad than an attack on my patriotic heart and soul. More troubling for what it portends than what it actually is.

I suspect many Americans feel as I do, which is why our newspapers and television media breezily brandish the burning of Old Glory, while extremely few would dare to show us the corpses of the four brave Americans who died last week in the line of duty. Burning people, rather than burning flags, is what justifiably angers and horrifies us. In fact, even putting "burning flags" and "burning people" in the same sentence seems offensive.

Yet I compare my reaction with the so-called "Arab Street." Recognizing, as I must, that the people participating in the protests are a small percentage of the populations in these countries, and that those who go the next step to violence are a small percentage of the protestors, I can't help but notice that both the people burning our flag and those burning our consulates and embassies are doing so ostensibly because they are offended by primitive aspersions directed at the Prophet Muhammad. More specifically, they are angered and horrified that one or two of the 300-million-plus people of the United States (including apparently an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian) moronically insulted their exalted Prophet.

Yes, I know the Arab Street is being manipulated. (Stay tuned for Lesson 3.) And yes, I know that many Americans would also take umbrage at the ridicule of their own religious beliefs. After all, there are Americans who complain about "Happy Holidays" as a seasonal greeting and insist that printing "In God We Trust" on our currency is necessary to bolster their beleaguered faith. Surely, that's more insecure than the Muslims who complain when their faith is viciously attacked.

But while I sometimes cringe at the crass depictions of Jesus (and others) in a typical vulgar South Park episode, it is inconceivable to me that any sane American would justify an assault on its creators. Despite the tragedies in Missouri and Wisconsin, we seldom hear of "God-fearing" Americans burning a mosque. More importantly, such rare attacks meet with universal condemnation by authorities in the West. Our Government would never allow a physical attack on an Arab embassy or consulate. Without irony, I thank God for that.

Fouad Ajami's op-ed in the Washington Post ("Why is the Arab World So Easily Offended?") reminds us of the cultural differences that can lead to violence. Which is why I thought Hillary Clinton hit exactly the right tone. It is well worth listening to her short statement in full. The Secretary of State showed, with an equal measure of empathy and resolve, that one can absolutely reject a bigoted screed as "disgusting and reprehensible" while re-affirming that "violence around free speech is never acceptable."

To me, this should not just be an American value, but a universal human value. When the day comes that the "Arab Street" cares more about the on-going brutal murder of tens of thousands of innocent civilians by the Syrian Government than a crude, offensive diatribe put forward by an obscure idiot, that will give me hope. Where are the protests at Syrian embassies worldwide?