Tense meeting with extremist pastor Terry Jones who is igniting global outrage
Yesterday morning, not so long before he announced, to the relief of a watching world, that he would cancel his plan to burn the Koran, he was sitting in a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, trainers and shorts in his office, contemplating the speech that Barack Obama had been making about him on TV.
That was not the only reason Mr Jones was distracted. The coffee in his church in the Gainesville woods wasn't made; and his website had mysteriously gone down.
With a reporter waiting, Jones Sr hasn't had time to see all of the Obama interview with ABC TV, but the bit when the President urges him to listen to "better angels" had made him laugh. Even then, he gave little sign that he would shortly be performing a remarkable volte-face. "I listen only to God," he says. "Angels don't communicate with us – God does. I don't want to be rude, but that sounds like the statement of someone who doesn't understand Christianity."
Tall and lanky with a drooping moustache, Mr Jones seemed both confident and uncertain at the same time. In his office, whatever he had decided about the burning, all the outward signs were still in place. After we talked, his son, Luke, took me to a side-room where the condemned Korans were heaped on a small table.
In fact, to hear Mr Jones tell the tale of his adventures in extremism is to hear the story of a man who was always in over his head. He began his anti-Islam onslaught a year ago, putting signs outside the church that read "Islam is of the Devil". The reaction, he confessed, was stronger than he had expected. And it wasn't great for his congregation, which, at about 50, is half what it was before he started.
That he has already ignited a different kind of fire – of anger and dismay – in every corner of the world has not left him unaffected, he said. He and his congregation were listening; and perhaps Mr Jones was giving just a hint of the decision that was to come. "We are weighing and praying and we are reconsidering," he said. The door to retreat was open, but it had to be God that told him to do it. "We feel for now that we have received a very clear message [from God] to do it," he offered. "That hasn't changed yet." But Mr Jones went on to recall the Old Testament story of God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham accepts the order. "Only at the last second, God stops him."
Yet whatever his eventual climbdown, the furore precisely demonstrates, he would still say, what he has been arguing all along – that "there is so much fear connected to Islam. This is why the act of burning Korans has created this kind of reaction."
He may not have seen anything yet. What could have happened here on Saturday, a day when 90,000 fans of the Gators, the American football team of the University of Florida, are due in town, is anybody's guess. What may still happen in the Muslim world is more worrying still.
A nearby resident, Alan Morrow, 62, a former police officer, had spent yesterday putting orange tape across his driveway lest the promised burnings had triggered some kind of furious invasion. "This is America, folks," he said. "We have freedom of speech. But there are different ways to skin a cat and this just isn't right." Sam Gordon, 24, a chef, is blunter. "Everyone in this town that I have talked to thinks this shit is completely out of order," he said.
The climbdown followed a meeting between Mr Jones and Imam Muhammad Musri, of the Central Florida Islamic Society, during which he invited the pastor to join in a 9/11 commemoration instead of burning the Korans.
"We want him to hear other prominent faith leaders talking about how to learn from the tragedy that fell on us on 9/11," he said. "We are trying to find a way for him to be able to address his concerns about Islam without the negative repercussions that would follow a burning of Korans."
Meanwhile, the city managers had told Mr Jones he must pay for all the security costs while the fire department would have pounced with a fine because he had no permit to light a bonfire.
No one will ever no exactly what led Mr Jones to his decision. The extent of the possible fines might have weighed on his mind; yesterday he was insisting that God was his man. But, he added, "If I ignored Obama I would be as crazy as people say I am," he said. And are you crazy? "Well," he concluded, "I don't think I'm crazy."