The greatest problem facing civilization
September 19, 2006
Writing in the Los Angeles Times yesterday, author Sam Harris castigates “liberals” for being “soft on terror”. From a bracing and in many ways admirable position of contempt for all religion, Harris derives a picture of an apocalyptic global fight for “civilization” of which George W. Bush himself would surely approve. It’s a good trick.
The message of Harris’s article is: “We are not fighting a ‘war on terror’. We are fighting a pestilential theology”. The image of religion as a plague or a virus is interesting, though it lacks an epidemiological hypothesis as to how the disease is spread. To be on the safe side, if you are one of Harris’s “we” (let us silently ignore a few million American Muslims here and there), you should probably be careful not to stand too close to any Muslim in case his “pestilential theology” can be transmitted by airborne particles. For this disease is more widespread than you suspect . . .
Unfortunately, such religious extremism is not as fringe a phenomenon as we might hope. Numerous studies have found that the most radicalized Muslims tend to have better-than-average educations and economic opportunities.
As so often in such discussions, logic has gone on holiday. If by “the most radicalized Muslims” (radicalized by pestilence?) Harris means suicide bombers, then it is true that studies such as Robert A Pape’s Dying to Win and Louise Richardson’s What Terrorists Want have found suicide bombers to be better educated than average in their countries, and not among the poorest. But how do you get from this to concluding that it is “not as fringe a phenomenon as we might hope”? The second simply does not follow from the first. It is like saying serial killers are often quite intelligent – so serial killing must be more common than we thought. Luckily, Harris doesn’t mention the “studies” he invokes by name. For if he is really thinking of Pape et al., he would have been obliged to mention that the same research also shows that the “pestilential theology” itself is not the prime motivational factor of al Qaeda-type suicide bombing. Nor, as Pape has recently shown, does it even feature very much in their recruitment materials. But if you seek out such facts you show a regrettable lack of imagination. Harris knows the truth:
The truth is that there is every reason to believe that a terrifying number of the world’s Muslims now view all political and moral questions in terms of their affiliation with Islam. This leads them to rally to the cause of other Muslims no matter how sociopathic their behavior. This benighted religious solidarity may be the greatest problem facing civilization and yet it is regularly misconstrued, ignored or obfuscated by liberals.
A terrifying number. How big a number is terrifying? Personally, a googolplex makes my head spin. And, you know, 666 is quite scary. Harris furnishes us with an estimate:
Unless liberals realize that there are tens of millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney, they will be unable to protect civilization from its genuine enemies.
Tens of millions! Are these “tens of millions” all aspiring suicide bombers, or people who express sympathy with suicide bombers, or merely people sweating in a fever of their pestilential theology’s making? Is it pedantic to point out that public support for al Qaeda-style groups has fallen rather than risen in recent years, for instance, in Indonesia? How many of these “tens of millions” of plague-carriers have managed to kill more civilians than have died as a result of the actions of the government that harbours Dick Cheney?
But that latter question is silly, of course. I am overlooking the most basic moral distinctions:
In their analyses of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy, liberals can be relied on to overlook the most basic moral distinctions. For instance, they ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so. Muslims routinely use human shields, and this accounts for much of the collateral damage we and the Israelis cause; the political discourse throughout much of the Muslim world, especially with respect to Jews, is explicitly and unabashedly genocidal. Given these distinctions, there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah. And yet liberals in the United States and Europe often speak as though the truth were otherwise.
This accounts for much of the collateral damage . . . we cause. This is a marvellously Janus-headed sentence. On the one hand, Harris cannot deny that civilian deaths have been caused by the bombs and missiles “we” launch. Yet even though “we” cause them, they are nonetheless accounted for by the actions of the “Muslims” (yes, Muslims in general) themselves. Can you think of anything else that is caused by one thing yet accounted for by another?
Harris thinks it is a basic moral distinction that “we”, as it is often put, do our best to avoid civilian casualties. This is an appeal often made by defenders of “our” actions, even though it begs a very simple reply: Dude, your best is not good enough. I suppose it did not make much difference to the thousand-plus civilians killed in Lebanon, about a third of whom were children, whether they were being killed by people in the grip of a “pestilential theology” or not. That you can nonetheless stand on the moral high ground while killing twenty-five times as many civilians as your enemies should tell us something about people who make such claims to metaphysical territory.
Is it possible that policies based on inflammatory rhetoric about threats to civilization are themselves a greater threat to civilization than any “pestilential theology”? Is it possible that securing “loose nukes” in Russia and elsewhere to combat nuclear proliferation, currently assigned only a tiny proportion of the US’s budget for its own nuclear weapons, let alone the whole “war on terror”, should rather be treated as a first priority? Is it possible that shouting about a terrifying Muslim menace drowns out discussion of global warming, which has a much better empirical case to be considered a threat to civilization?
Such carping questions, on Harris’s view, mean I am a liberal with my head in the sand. Won’t you come and join me? It’s nice and warm down here.