At the outbreak of World War II, the essayist E. B. White, who was writing a magazine column from his farm in Maine, complained that he felt inadequate, occupying what he called "the low hummocks of humor" when a man ought to be doing more muscular and heroic things in the cause of freedom.
A similar frustration enshrouds a columnist who comments on the often frivolous popular arts when he contemplates the black and shocking farce of an author condemned to death in absentia for a work of fiction.
Salman Rushdie is a brilliantly subtle and difficult writer, and in the ordinary course of literary affairs "The Satanic Verses" was not likely to crowd Ken Follett or even Tom Wolfe on the best-seller lists.
But, in the long tradition of book-banners, the Ayatollah has assured Rushdie literary immortality and tens of thousands of sales that he might otherwise never have had.
The sales are inadequate consolations for the terrible danger to Rushdie personally and to the cause of free expression. Yet once the initial and paralyzing impact of the death sentence and its corollary threats to publishers and book sellers have passed--and it appears to be waning--world opinion will further isolate the Iranian leader. "The Satanic Verses" will be bought as a symbol of defiance to censorship and intimidation.
What cannot so easily be countermanded is the personal danger to Rushdie, who will tragically remain a target for fanatic resentments and hatreds that at base have only incidentally to do with him or his book.
In a larger view, it seems clear that the Ayatollah's pronouncement has also done severe damage to the whole idea of religious faith.
The world is divided into believers, disbelievers and those who have made some sort of middle-ground, private accommodation to the possibility of a higher power.
But down the long march of civilization, and despite--or because of--the long history of bloody religious wars, people of good will have made tolerance of unshared beliefs one characteristic of civilized behavior.
In theological matters, the tolerance is based on the assumption that faith, of whatever persuasion, is rooted in love. Whatever its specifics, faith is presumed to be a blueprint for a good, constructive and peaceful life. The terrible irony is that over the centuries the zealous belief in one true faith or another has wrought such mayhem.
Still, you'd have said that some progress toward the accommodation of differing faiths had been made and that in our time the cruel and inhuman spectacle of the Holocaust had had a permanently shaming and chastening effect. Yet the murderous warnings out of Iran destroy even a tentative optimism about a universal rise in tolerance and thrust us back to an earlier, barbarous state of the world.
Yet the mind--let alone the heart--refuses to accept that the nature of the attacks on Rushdie is a true reflection of Islam and Islamic faith. The opposition to a book that is regarded as offensive is one thing; the call to violence against the author is something else, darker and more cynical.
Just as the contrary voices were silenced in the Germany of the Third Reich, so the voices of moderation and a calmer good sense inside Iran or in the believing community beyond its borders have seemingly been inhibited by the extremists.
This is the largest tragedy of all, beyond the danger to Rushdie and the temporary threat to freedom of expression. We still live in one world and it survives--if it does--by hewing to rules of civilized conduct that have been defined along our painful climb from the caves to the stars.
E. B. White did not dismay easily, and he might have found in Rushdie's peril a reassuring proof of the power of the printed word. There is that to be said for it.