Head-in-the-sand Liberals

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This page is about the article Head-in-the-sand Liberals by Sam Harris, also posted under the title "The End of Liberalism?".



Sam Harris has apparently come to some of the same conclusions I've been reaching. I think we've been far too tolerant of religion-based bad behavior, and the kind of thinking that leads to it, largely because of lessons painfully learned about the evils of religious intolerance. The latter is a problem when it becomes directed at people, i.e. holders of a faith, rather than at the memes propagated by the faith itself. Because of past evils visited on people (as individuls or in groups) for holding certain beliefs, as a society we have sort of marked all religious criticism as "off-bounds" – conflating suppression of individual liberties (which is bad) with suppression of hostile memes (by way of informational inoculation – education) and so forth. (When a hostile meme infects someone and causes them to commit criminal acts, I still blame the criminal – but also look for ways to prevent the meme spreading further.)

I too have become suspicious of the "terrorists are just impoverished and frustrated, poor dears" explanation of terrorism. I have one or two sketchy alternative theories to explain it, but much more data is needed.

This is part of why I have been spending so much time lately analyzing public opinion on various issues, to see if I can begin to make any kind of sense of why people do and think as they do. I have learned an awful lot, but each discovery leads to more questions. These are the kinds of questions we need to be answering if we are going to keep civilization intact.

On the 9/11 conspiracy issue... at this point, I'm still collecting data. One can construct a semi-believable story in which the current administration plays a role in (at least) allowing the attacks to happen. As Clinton said, Bush's people knew full well "Osama determined to strike United States", and they did nothing. At this point, however, the range of possible explanations still includes "benign neglect", and even if the towers were rigged for demolition, there is as yet no non-circumstantial evidence to connect that with anyone in the administration. Either the data will eventually point to the truth (whatever that may be), or it will remain a mystery; the point is to keep looking until you have something that makes sense. What we have now doesn't make sense; there are too many anomalies, and too many unanswered questions. I'm quite prepared to believe (and I hope it's true) that there is some benign explanation waiting for the right stone to be overturned... but I haven't seen it yet... and the people in charge don't do anything to cast off suspicion when they seem to be hiding evidence or trying to gloss things over, of which activity there has certainly been an inordinately large volume.

9/11 aside, there is plenty of hard evidence that Bush was looking for an excuse to invade Iraq; 9/11 was a perfect opportunity for just about any kind of aggression he might have wanted to carry out. It seems reasonable to me (i.e. something one would expect to happen) that people might over-extrapolate from that, even if the conclusion is wrong.

But yeah, people will believe anything. I've talked (on the internet, no less) to people who believe the world is a few thousand years old, who seem otherwise entirely rational. A lot of Americans apparently believe Saddam was implicated in the attacks, when there has never been any evidence for that – and it seems extremely suspicious that Bush & co. seem to take every opportunity to build on that myth (much as with that other myth I mentioned). Even if it's just standard public-relations spinning, and even if it's for a good cause, it's not something I like in a leader (or an administration) – it leads too easily to using the same tools (spin, disinformation) for less good causes. If Clinton had done anything like this, he would have been removed from office pronto. (At least, I like to think so.)

And yes, getting back to the point you made the other day, these people are Bad. I would not be one to argue that we simply need to sit down in a circle with them and Understand them until they step back from the Dark Side. Their actions are irredeemable, and extreme measures are clearly called for.

This does not, however, excuse violations of the rules of law which we as an enlightened civilization have worked out as a way of avoiding (further) atrocities. For one thing, many of the people being detained and tortured are quite probably innocent, especially given the lack of requirements for arrest (due to the USA PATRIOT Act).

For another, even if they are guilty, the more inhumanely we treat them, the more their compatriots and families on the other side (including a majority who have not, as yet, decided to do anything evil in retribution) will see that we are really no better than the "bad guys" from whom we claim to be rescuing them. This drives them (including many who might have remained uninvolved or even supportive of our efforts) into retaliatory actions – which gives us the right to be even more extreme against them, etc.

This is exactly what the anti-West terrorists want: unending war. They get power, they get to die gloriously (except for the ones in power, who mostly are gracious about it and let their subordinates go first), they get 72 virgins in paradise, whatever – we may not yet be clear on the reasons, but I certainly haven't seen any evidence that they – at least, this particular they (conflating all the different terrorist groups, as Bush seems to want to do, is a bit like fighting lung cancer with a broad-spectrum antibiotic) – want anything reasonable. Yes, they are the enemy – but their individual members look just like humans, and until proven guilty (at least in the legal sense of "proof") we need to treat them as if they are human, or even assume they actually are human, because we don't know until we know. "By his actions ye shall know him" or whatever the quote is.

Muslims as a group may be more prone to producing terrorists than other groups (or even other religious groups), but thinking that all Muslims are therefore the enemy is doing exactly the wrong thing. The enemy is the meme, not the host. Hate the sin, not the sinner. See first paragraph above.

Besides, there are much smarter and more effective ways of getting accurate information. Torture is notorious for confirming whatever you think you want to hear, especially when conducted by amateurs (as was plainly the case at Gitmo). Using it is a last resort; continuing to use it when it isn't producing results, and defending your (ineffective) use of it in the face of legitimate public opposition, is just plain stupid.

And finally, as St. Thomas More observed: if you knock down all the laws in your pursuit of the devil, what do you do when the devil turns and comes after you? Bush is gradually leaving us defenseless in his holy pursuit of the devil. (Not only knocking down laws but also global support, military readiness, competency of internal agencies... the list goes on.)

Dick Cheney is scarier than the Islamofascists because he has more power than any hundred of them. When an administration has as much power as this one has at its disposal, you like to see them talking calmly and rationally. The least little twitch of the trigger-finger is amplified by that very ratio – the number of nukes Dick Cheney could launch in a sudden fit of rage (or simply bad judgment), versus how many Osama could launch (zero, at last count, though I'm sure they are working on this).

The longer we continue the "war on terror" in this stupid, quarter-brained frat-boy manner, the longer the terrorists have to get their act together and really cause some damage.

And I agree completely with his last sentence.

Critique History

  • Posted: 2006-09-30 20:00
  • Author: Woozle
  • Notes: originally written as an email to JERS. This version has been edited slightly for posting here.