I wanted to like Sam Harris. The first piece of his I ever read on Truthdig (now almost a decade ago) really resonated with me. So much so that I went out and bought his book, “The End of Faith.” I didn’t finish it, because I got disgusted with it I wrote a blog post about the reasons why I got disgusted with it some 9 years ago:
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:
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.
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 was a rather long excerpt from my old blog. Yes, I used to be quite the Democrat—no longer. So Harris is still up to his same old BS, i.e., using the cover of his impressive education and presumed erudition to support the neocons. And Cenk calls him on it, like for example at approximately the 36 minute mark:
HARRIS: You’re being too loose with Christianity. Christianity is not just as violent [as Islam]. Christianity has a history of extraordinary violence…
UYGUR: By far, historically the most violent religion on the planet…
HARRIS: Well, that…I don’t know what you’re lumping into the Christian bin there, but that’s debatable. But let’s just talk about the centuries of…
UYGUR: Muslims didn’t start the two world wars, Muslims didn’t do the Holocaust, Muslims didn’t do the Crusades…
HARRIS: Those were not because of Christianity—the world wars were not because of Christianity…
UYGUR: I know, that’s “complicated.” When Christians do it, it’s “complicated,” when Muslims do it, it’s not complicated, it’s because of Islam.
HARRIS: No, no, no…
Dead is dead: war IS terrorism
So again we see, just as in his book, Harris gives one unquestionably violent religion (i.e., Christianity) a pass—presumably because he agrees with the concomitant political motivations and outcomes—while another unquestionably violent religion and its followers (i.e., Islam and Muslims) must be neutralized. The talk then turns to Hitler being a Christian—which he was—and while Harris doesn’t give Hitler a pass, he does give Christianity a pass. But not Islam. Indeed, at around the 49:57 mark, he asks:
HARRIS: Where are the Christian suicide bombers? Where are the Christians cutting the heads off of Yazidis ? Where is this death cult behavior among Christians?
Harris’ big mistake is that he apparently thinks that killing hundreds of thousands—possibly millions—of people with conventional weapons and/or new weapons like drones is somehow morally superior to suicide bombing or beheading and doesn’t rise to “death cult behavior.”
News flash: dead is dead. It’s all wrong—suicide bombing and conventional bombing. And that is the travesty and tragedy of Harris’ argument—instead of arguing that killing people is wrong, for any reason, he still plays into the neocon argument which essentially states that “when Western whites kill Eastern non-whites with supposedly pure intentions of freedom and democracy as understood by the Western whites, that’s objectively morally correct, but when Eastern non-whites kill Western whites, that’s always objectively morally incorrect, no matter what their reasons may be—self-defense, etc.” It’s the white man’s burden, but with a sheen of supposedly objective, dispassionate reasoning. Except it isn’t—it’s hogwash.