AS WE CLOSE the books on the ninth anniversary of 9/11, we'd do well to remember the lessons learned so

they're not repeated next year, on the significant 10th anniversary.

Clearly something just went wrong. What should have been several days of solemn reflection on the attacks and a proper honoring of those we lost was hijacked by an obscure "man of the cloth" enabled by the media and the highest rung of our political leadership.

Here are the takeaways.

Rule No. 1: Politicians can't treat fringe players like they are world leaders. This story was energized by the likes of Gen. David Petraeus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama. The more they talked, the more credibility the object of their ire got from the media.

The chronology is compelling: For all the manic coverage that this Florida pastor (and I'm not going to dignify his actions by naming him) garnered last week, one little-noted element of the story is when it actually began: July 12. That day, following a series of tweets in which he equated Islam with fascism, among other things, the minister posted "9/11/2010 Int Burn a Koran Day" and started a Facebook page for the event as well.

The reaction was hardly immediate. Sure, the controversy simmered. But it didn't boil over until the start of last week.

That's when Petraeus said any Quran burning would "endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort," calling it "precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses" to recruit those who would do America harm.

From there, the media descended on the church in question. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs gave them incentive to stay when he said the event was a "concern to this administration." Clinton called it "disgraceful." Attorney General Eric Holder reportedly deemed it idiotic and dangerous in a private meeting.

Finally, and unfortunately, the president weighed in, calling the event a "recruitment bonanza for al Qaeda" and a "stunt."

Let's be clear. Petraeus was right. So were Gibbs, Clinton and Holder. The president was right, too, especially in his assessment of the event as a stunt.

But by engaging the instigator - even though they were condemning his actions - Petraeus, Gibbs, Clinton, Holder and Obama created the impression that he was a serious person.

The result? Round-the-clock media attention, which in turn

fueled international outrage toward the U.S. And even though the organizer didn't actually end up burning any Qurans, the attention he received was enough to inspire copycats.

The fiends at Westboro Baptist Church, of Topeka, Kansas, adorned Islam's holy book with an American flag and set them both on fire. In Springfield, Tenn., two ministers went through with it as well - under the guise of defending the Constitution - even as several women with loved ones actually on the battlefield fighting the war against terrorists protested outside. In Australia, a lawyer smoked pages of both the Quran and the Bible!

We shouldn't be surprised. The same environment that lets "The Situation" flash his abs until people want to buy his workout video has now turned an irrelevant religious leader into a perverted trendsetter himself.

The Gainesville pastor is the Balloon Boy of preachers, a product of a media environment that glorifies outrageous behavior under the guise of reality TV.

Rule No. 2: The media must temper their coverage of the fringe and present them as the aberrant individuals they are.

Reporters, anchors and even commentators can't treat every screwball out there with legitimacy. I'm not calling for censorship, just reality-based reporting. If someone in the news is a kook, make it clear. And don't go overboard with the gaggle. Outcasts don't warrant media encampments on their front lawns.

We can't be afraid of people like the would-be Quran-burners in Florida and the homophobes at Westboro Baptist. They don't represent the majority of Americans, nor do they embody this country's ideals. They should be treated with appropriate dismissiveness, not awarded the attention of a head of state.

RULE NO. 3: We must remember that our Constitution protects many offensive and stupid acts, and sheltering our adversaries from the kooks among us is unrealistic and unnecessary as well.

Those who'd burn a Quran or a flag do have the right to do such idiotic things - in fact, it's the most fundamental of American rights. To be afraid of that would be a move to the slippery slope of limiting free speech.

The Constitution may protect a Florida preacher's right to burn a holy book, but it need not shield him from a dismissive media.

Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210-AM.