Monday, November 07, 2005


A few entries ago, I mentioned Sam Harris and his book “The End Of Faith” in a favorable light. That was before I read the book.

For such a gifted writer who is fearless and unrelenting in his puncturing of religious belief, his voracious appetite for received wisdom is unsettling.

In short, he thinks we’re the good guys and the “terrorists” (read Muslims and non-Westerners) are the bad guys. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate this. He writes as though he is not aware of the work of Robert Pape, but he in fact does refer to Pape’s work.

Here’s an example of what I mean about us being good and them being bad:

(p. 141)
Take the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceuticals plant [in Sudan]:according to Chomsky, the atrocity of September 11 pales in comparison with that perpetrated by the Clinton administration in August 1998. But let us now ask some very basic questions that Chomsky seems to have neglected to ask himself: What did the U.S. government think it was doing when it sent cruise missiles into Sudan? Destroying a chemical weapons site used by Al Qaeda.

Harris points out that Chomsky’s justification for this charge is that the bombing of the plant resulted in thousands of deaths in Sudan because pharmaceuticals are hard to come by in Sudan to begin with and then when a plant that makes them gets blown up, Sudan is then even worse off than usual.

Harris then goes on to ask this question:

(Continuing directly) Did the Clinton administration intend to bring about the deaths of thousands of Sudanese children? No. Was our goal to kill as many Sudanese as we could? No.

Intent Or Result

My problem with this line of reasoning is that it doesn’t matter if we didn't intend to cause the deaths of thousands of people. What matters is that we caused it. In other words, no matter what our intent may have been, the result is the same–thousands of innocent people dead.

It reminds me of a child who causes a lamp to fall off a table, breaking it. The parent scolds the child but the child protests that he didn’t mean to do it. But the parent points out the obvious–the lamp is still broken.

Harris then goes on to say that “asking [the above] questions about Osama bin Laden and the nineteen hijackers puts us in a different moral universe entirely.” And that is the crux of my problem with the Harris book so far–that Harris won’t tolerate violence from Muslims directed at the West because of their beliefs and their intentions. But violence carried out by the West against Muslims is A-OK because of our intentions and our beliefs.

That is to say, in Harris’ mind, the violence of Muslims is always only the result of a religious belief and never the result of a legitimate political grievance buttressed by a religious belief.

For such a learned person, his apparent naivete about geopolitical concerns is disturbing. For instance, he writes disapprovingly of Iraqi reaction to the U.S. occupation of that country, saying that “the idea of an army of infidels occupying Baghdad simply could not be countenanced, no matter what humanitarian purpose it might serve (p. 128).” Again, he attempts to exonerate the U.S. with our supposedly good intentions. But the road to Abu Ghraib is paved with good intentions.

An Honest Peanut Farmer

Speaking of that, on BookTV this weekend, Brian Williams played devil’s advocate with Jimmy Carter, pointing out that neocons would defend the war, however ill-advised it may have been and however atrociously it may now be going, by asking “Don’t you think that, if nothing else, the world is better off without Saddam in power?”

I was afraid that like most Democrats and liberals who are on pundit shows, he would be forced to admit that “yes, the world is better off without Saddam” and then just leave it at that. But thankfully, to his credit, Carter didn’t do that. He pointed out the obvious–yes, the world is better off without Saddam in power, but that didn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s cost hundreds of billions of dollars for us to do that, over 2,000 American lives, 15,000 + wounded, scores of thousands of Iraqi dead and wounded, and a big drop in our support around the world. Was getting rid of Saddam, who had no WMD (acknowledged by Rice and Powell prior to Sept. 11) and never threatened us worth all of that, Carter shot back?

Just Turned The Page

OK, I read on and was stunned again by Harris’ naivete but don’t have time to write about it. He buys the argument that, as Arundhati Roy says in a passage he quotes, America is a “well-intentioned giant.” Roy uses the term in derogation, Harris uses it as absolution. But what Harris fails to see is that our intentions are “good” to us–but they are bad to others. Harris will not hear of a Muslim’s intentions being “good” because they are often counter to our intentions, and therefore bad, even though from a Muslim perspective they are “good.”

And this is where the “moral equivalence” canard gets shown for the bullshit it is. If anyone’s intentions are “good” but result in deaths of innocents, that is bad. The ends do not justify the means (Scott Ritter asked anyone who believed that to turn in their passports and get out of the country in a session with Seymour Hersh yesterday on C-Span). If you mean to do good, but hurt people in the process of doing “good,” you’ve done bad.

Why is that? Well, because anyone can claim to be well-meaning. You cannot see people’s “good” intentions, but you can see the dead bodies that may well result from them.

OK, that’s as far as I can take this tonight. But I think Harris would make a great guest on “The Majority Report”–a neoconservative that thinks religion is harmful.

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