In Defense Of Sam Harris

I have followed fairly closely the ongoing controversy among liberals on the issue of how to talk about Islam in the context of what we see going on in the Middle East. Unfortunately, there are some contemporary liberals who are so enamored with the ideas behind multiculturalism (which is not a bad thing in itself; but context is everything) that they can’t bring themselves to see that there are precious few Muslim-majority countries in the world that are advanced enough to have accepted what most of us consider to be necessary and universal human rights.

On comedian and commentator Bill Maher’s HBO show recently, both he and Sam Harris, a liberal and a thinker I greatly admire even when I disagree with him, got into a rather heated (and now famous) debate with actor and liberal activist Ben Affleck and left-leaning journalist Nicholas Kristof. The background issue was “Islamophobia,” a term that liberals have invented to describe what they consider to be unfair and bigoted criticism of Muslims and Islam, found mostly among right-wingers. Maher and Harris, nobody’s right-wingers, were essentially accused of racism and bigotry for their outspoken views on the dangers inherent in not just radical Islam, but in its non-radical form.

Below is the segment, which you can watch and then return for my take on it all, but note the key point that Harris tries to make:

The crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where criticism of the religion gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people. It’s intellectually ridiculous.

“It’s gross and racist,” says Affleck of Maher’s and Harris’ views. To which Harris responds (my emphasis):

Ben, we have to be able to criticize bad ideas. And Islam at this moment is the mother lode of bad ideas.

Affleck says in response:

That’s an ugly thing to say.

Is it? Well, maybe it is. But at this moment it is not as ugly as denying that Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas. Much like Christianity was centuries before, Islam here in the 21st-century is truly the source of a lot of not only bad ideas but a lot of accompanying bad actions. And that is what many liberals find so hard to accept. They want to believe that there is room in the tent of civilization for all kinds of belief systems, and when it comes to Islam, liberals reflexively want to be inclusive. They don’t want to judge Muslim cultures too broadly or too harshly, even though they have little trouble criticizing conservative evangelicals who want to put their fingerprints on government and culture. Perhaps that is because so many conservative evangelicals not only make bigoted judgments about Muslims, but they also make bigoted judgments about liberals.

But the truth is that some belief systems inherently reject our Western notions of civilization, which, for instance, include a profound respect for women’s rights. There are some folks who don’t want to live in any social tent in which women are equal with men. And there are things in Islam, in book-based Islam, that encourage Muslims to shun such Western ideas, that encourage Muslims to not integrate into Western societies too deeply. In the worst cases, there are things in Islam that foster a desire on the part of a minority of Muslims to not just reject universal human rights, but embrace terrorists who want to destroy Western culture—one head at a time.

After the exchange on Maher’s show, Harris wrote:

Kristof made the point that there are brave Muslims who are risking their lives to condemn “extremism” in the Muslim community. Of course there are, and I celebrate these people too. But he seemed completely unaware that he was making my point for me—the point being, of course, that these people are now risking their lives by advocating for basic human rights in the Muslim world.

Harris followed with this:

Although I clearly stated that I wasn’t claiming that all Muslims adhere to the dogmas I was criticizing; distinguished between jihadists, Islamists, conservatives, and the rest of the Muslim community; and explicitly exempted hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t take the doctrines about blasphemy, apostasy, jihad, and martyrdom seriously, Affleck and Kristof both insisted that I was disparaging all Muslims as a group.

I have read most of Harris’ books and listened to many debates he’s been in. I completely understand where he’s coming from, even if many liberals don’t. There is room in liberalism for both critics of Islam and for critics of genuine bigots who lump all Muslims together and condemn them. Harris is the former without being the latter. But some liberals don’t see it that way and are unfairly attacking a fellow liberal. Here’s what Harris has to say about that:

One of the most depressing things in the aftermath of this exchange is the way Affleck is now being lauded for having exposed my and Maher’s “racism,” “bigotry,” and “hatred of Muslims.” This is yet another sign that simply accusing someone of these sins, however illogically, is sufficient to establish them as facts in the minds of many viewers. It certainly does not help that unscrupulous people like Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald have been spinning the conversation this way.

It turns out that Harris had good reason to go after Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald (a man whom I have heavily criticized for his stance on the Edward Snowden leaks and his grossly unfair attacks on President Obama). In a post a few days ago that was titled, “On the Mechanics of Defamation,” Harris wrote:

Let me briefly illustrate how this works. Although I could cite hundreds of examples from the past two weeks alone, here is what I woke up to this morning: Some person who goes by the name of @dan_verg_ on Twitter took the most easily misunderstood sentence in The End of Faith out of (its absolutely essential) context, attached it to a scary picture of me, and declared me a “genocidal fascist maniac.” Then Reza Aslan retweeted it. An hour later, Glenn Greenwald retweeted it again.

Here is the Tweet:

You can read for yourself, in context, what Harris meant by the statement that was nicely fitted onto that eerie photograph of him and sent to millions of people around the world. But Harris points out,

Both Greenwald and Aslan know that those words do not mean what they appear to mean. Given the amount of correspondence we’ve had on these topics, and given that I have repeatedly bored audiences by clarifying that statement (in response to this kind of treatment), the chance that either writer thinks he is exposing the truth about my views—or that I’m really a “genocidal fascist maniac”—is zero. Aslan and Greenwald—a famous “scholar” and a famous “journalist”—are engaged in a campaign of pure defamation. They are consciously misleading their readers and increasing my security concerns in the process.

That two liberals would do this to another liberal is unconscionable. Harris ends his blog post with this:

Aslan and Greenwald know that nowhere in my work do I suggest that we kill harmless people for thought crimes. And yet they (along with several of their colleagues) are doing their best to spread this lie about me. Nearly every other comment they’ve made about my work is similarly misleading.

Both Aslan and Greenwald are debasing our public discourse and making honest discussion of important ideas increasingly unpleasant—even personally dangerous. Why are they doing this? Please ask them and those who publish them.

And that is why I decided to write about this issue. Last night, on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes, the host did a segment featuring Reza Aslan in which they discussed these issues. And he did that segment without once mentioning the slanderous tweet that both Aslan and Glenn Greenwald (who also appears as a guest on Hayes’ show from time to time) retweeted and disseminated around the world. I don’t know if Hayes knew about the tweet. But I was sorely disappointed in the liberal commentator, whom I much admire. If he did know, shame on him. If he didn’t know, he or his staff should have done better research.

Sadly, it is quite likely that Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald will continue to enjoy the support of liberals in the media, and Sam Harris will continue to endure the slander that is represented by that offensive tweet.

And liberalism is the lesser for all of it.

45 Comments

  1. Interesting. Thanks for this research, Duane. Apropos of the topic, I have often wondered about Islam the religion. Unlike Christianity, it seems to me that it can not be summed up, nor contextualized in any understandable way. If it can, I haven’t read it. To do that for Christianity, one would, I think, offer the Golden Rule, John 3:16, and the sermon on the mount. Is there an Islamic equivalent? I suspect not, but I’d be glad to hear it.

    When I was a Presbyterian I was regularly enjoined to recite and reassert the belief that the (whole) bible is the true word of God, the very foundation of faith. That of course would include Leviticus and Deuteronomy, which, as we on these pages all know, are rife with practices and strictures that are utterly incompatible with civilized behavior and Constitutional freedoms. Christians conveniently ignore these contradictions whereas, it seems, many Muslims take their own OT equivalents quite seriously. So, is it just a matter of interpretation? Could moderate Muslims follow the example of the Presbyterians? Maybe their religion is too poorly defined and codified, I don’t know. But any religion that enables suicide bombing over disagreement as to who succeeded its primary prophet has to have something seriously wrong with it.

    Like

    • You pose an interesting question, Jim. Not being as familiar with Islam as I am with Christianity, I couldn’t possibly answer it. 

      You know that I think there is something “seriously wrong” with a number of religions, when viewed from the standpoint of their source documents. Islam is not unique in that respect. Where it is different is in the fact that at this point in time it has not yet undergone a moderate overhaul in the way that, say, Christianity has. Perhaps what you allude to has something to do with that. But I tend to think the reason for it is that in too many Muslim countries there is too much poverty and want, which tends to lend itself to embracing more radical ideologies-theologies. 
      All we can hope for is that moderate Muslims are successful in their struggle against a minority of folks who take too many Quranic verses deadly seriously.

      Duane

      Like

      • King Beauregard

         /  October 15, 2014

        “Where it is different is in the fact that at this point in time it has not yet undergone a moderate overhaul in the way that, say, Christianity has.”

        Islam in Afghanistan was modernizing before the Taliban took over. Islam in Iran was modernizing before the mullahs took over. Hell, even in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, women could land powerful positions in the field of near-literal supervillainy … you’ve come a long way, baby!

        http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3679040.stm

        Unfortunately, much of the Muslim world has regressed due to various movements … but the fact that they used to be more modern pretty much proves that it’s not Islam itself that forces backwardness on a people, so much as reactionary fudgeheads with guns.

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  2. King Beauregard

     /  October 14, 2014

    Dear Sam Harris:

    “The crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where criticism of the religion gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people. It’s intellectually ridiculous.”

    No, that’s not the crucial point of confusion, Sam. The crucial point is that you’re not differentiating between Islam itself and practices that have been embraced by some (admittedly far too many) Muslims. As soon as you say that Islam itself is misogynistic, intolerant, etc, you are also saying there’s no such thing as a good Muslim. That’s the point that was rankling Ben Affleck, I’m quite certain, even if he didn’t manage to distill it into words.

    And no, Sam, I’m not reading you out of context. At one point in the interview you offer to give Affleck what he wants, that there are “nominal Muslims” who aren’t misogynists, who don’t want to kill apostates, etc. Well how generous of you Sam! You’ve just said that any Muslims who have non-monstrous outlooks aren’t really Muslims at all.

    That’s bigotry, Sam.

    Hey Sam, let’s talk about places like Afghanistan and Iran. Theocratic hellholes today, I won’t deny it. But not so many decades ago, before lunatic fundamentalists rose to power, Islam was still practiced in those countries but with less of a Bronze Age oppressive style. Do I need to show you pictures? Because that’s easy, Sam:

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/gallery/2014/sep/10/iran-swinging-sixties-in-pictures

    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/05/27/once_upon_a_time_in_afghanistan

    How’s that even possible, Sam? If Islam is indeed the motherlode of bad ideas, how could Muslims have previously been practicing a Western lifestyle that at least appeared to be tolerant of women? Or are you still going with your opinion that these must be “nominal Muslims” at best?

    You know what the worst part is, Sam? As soon as you dehumanize Muslims by lumping them into an amorphous evil blob, you eventually get to the point where you don’t mind torturing and abusing them either. … Oh wait, you’ve already passed that point?

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/in-defense-of-torture_b_8993.html

    Holy shit, Sam, you’re recycling the very same arguments that the neocons did a decade ago, about how torture is actually a defensible thing, because it’s possible to construct a hypothetical scenario where torture might actually do some good.

    You’ve changed, Sam. You’re not a good person. And you can’t blame it on Islam.

    Liked by 1 person

    • King B,

      I suppose since you wrote this to Sam, I should let him answer personally. But since I don’t think he’s tuned in to this channel, I will take a crack at one part of what you said.

      For reasons of length, I left out this part of his response on his blog:

      Unfortunately, I misspoke slightly at this point, saying that hundreds of millions of Muslims don’t take their “faith” seriously. This led many people to think that I was referring to Muslim atheists (who surely don’t exist in those numbers) and suggesting that the only people who could reform the faith are those who have lost it. I don’t know how many times one must deny that one is referring to an entire group, or cite specific poll results to justify the percentages one is talking about, but no amount of clarification appears sufficient to forestall charges of bigotry and lack of “nuance.”

      I know that probably won’t satisfy you, but I thought it should be included in this discussion.

      Harris does criticize Islam for sure. No doubt about it. But he has done so mostly while also saying that “no one is suffering under its doctrine more than Muslims themselves: Muslim jihadists primarily kill other Muslims.” And I think it is fair to say that he believes Islam, like Christianity, can be rescued from the fundamentalists. So, yes, Sam does believe there is such a thing as “a good Muslim.” I’m sure he actually knows a few.

      But that brings up the point of just what exactly is a good Muslim? And who gets to decide? Is a Muslim good because he or she ignores the icky parts of their scripture or doctrine? Is a Muslim good because he or she adopts Western values like equality for women or gays? What most of us mean by “a good Muslim,” I think, is one that has essentially embraced a rather tame version of a rather untame faith. And if that is what you mean by it, then it seems to me, my friend, that you have sort of made Sam’s point.

      Duane

      Like

      • King Beauregard

         /  October 15, 2014

        “What most of us mean by “a good Muslim,” I think, is one that has essentially embraced a rather tame version of a rather untame faith.”

        ALL faiths are “untame”. Any Abrahamic faith includes all those old directives about slaughtering unbelievers because they interfere with Yahweh’s land deals. But the way most adherents today look at it is, whether or not Mohammed rode a flying horse to heaven or Jesus used his power of loaf-replication or Moses spoke to a burning bush, all that crazy stuff was in a different time and place, a legendary age. Here and now, in the 21st century, it is up to adherents to sort out what parts are applicable to modern life.

        As Aslan said, there are only two groups of people who think that the Koran (or the Old Testament or whatever) is to be taken literally: fundamentalists, and a certain stripe of atheist. Which is why that quote from Harris’s blog is indeed unsatisfying: I didn’t think he was referring to Muslim atheists, I thought he was referring to Muslims who don’t live like it’s 633 AD and it’s time to start smiting some Byzantine soldiers.

        Like

        • When you talk about “most adherents today…sort out what parts are applicable to modern life,” can we least agree that that applies less to Islam than it does to Christianity?

          As Harris has pointed out in one form or another, if I were to write something blasphemous about Jesus and post it on the side of my truck and drive down the street, I wouldn’t expect that lots of Christians would want to murder me for doing so. But if I did the same thing with Muhammad and drove down the street in too many places around the world, I would very much expect that lots of Muslims would want to murder me.

          If I could distill what Harris is saying (or what I hear him saying) down to its essentials, I think that example goes a long way toward doing that.

          Duane

          Like

          • King Beauregard

             /  October 15, 2014

            I agree intolerance is a bigger problem in the Muslim world than in the Christian world, sure. But Harris casts that as an issue with Islam itself, and the problem with doing that is, it doesn’t allow for Muslims to grow more tolerant — you can be tolerant or you can be a Muslim, but not both. That’s what I hear from him, and if you can find him saying otherwise in no uncertain terms, I’ll re-evaluate.

            There still remains Harris’s support of torture, though. “If there is even one chance in a million that he will tell us something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we should use every means at our disposal to get him talking.” – Sam Harris, proponent of modernity

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  3. King Beauregard

     /  October 15, 2014

    I’ve got a comment awaiting moderation (really two comments: the original and a redacted one where the naughty word was replaced with “fudge”). Could you be a dear and release it? K THX XOXO

    Like

    • King Beauregard

       /  October 15, 2014

      Let’s keep the one we have been discussing from. Thanks!

      Like

  4. ansonburlingame

     /  October 15, 2014

    Duane,

    Great post, but it went right over the head of the “King” a commenter I now ignore at least in trying to respond to him. When I do so I am usually called a “racist”, a bigot of some sort, etc.

    No I am not picking on “King” or you or anyone else. I am simply making the point, in agreement with Harris that large groups are not all bad or all good. There are nuances within any large group that are hard to isolate and condemn, however.

    I do know one thing. One cannot condemn or support large groups of people with one-liners. It takes far more effort to distinguish between the good and the bad in large groups, societies if you will. Once such distinction is made however, it becomes easier to isolate the bad and fix it without attacking the whole group or society. Welcome to the 21st Century I might say.

    If we went to war with say Russia, I seriously doubt we would “bomb Moscow” at least initially. We would go after the “KGB (SVR) goons” in our first onslaught, hopefully. Putin himself might be on our “hit list” as well. But certainly America would not claim that all Russians are bad Russians, not today at least, but yesteday, well ……..

    I also offer another more local point. I do not like at all what is going on in Ferguson, then and even now. SOME blacks (and whites) are just hoodlums in Ferguson. Other blacks (and whites) are well meaning citizens trying to improve their society.

    The trick is picking the good from the bad in a non-skin color way and then “fixing” the hell out of the bad ASAP. Yet what we have, in this blog and elsewhere in America today is a white against black rampage with no distinction (by some in here), generally, between good and bad, blacks or whites.

    I would also submit that the solution in just Ferguson is NOT simply more blacks on the police force or in other government positions. It is more GOOD people, of any race, creed, religion that assume public responsibilities in any government system.

    One more point, a personal point. If I boarded an airplane today and saw several Muslim (appearing) men, based on dress, skin color, “attitude”, etc boarding the same aircraft, . I would do nothing more than “keep an eye on them” during the flight. No action whatsoever other that just being “aware” of them. THAT is NOT racial profiling, it is like driving, you do it defensively.

    Same with walking around dark streets in “New Orleans”. I have done that many times. And yes, if I see a group of “shucking and jiving” black men lingering around, in the dark in such streets I walk defensively, but not aggressively. To me that is just common sense and I would do the same if I encountered “skin heads” on a given “dark street”.

    That is not racial or wrong to simply be aware of one’s evironment and take appropriate and non-offensive action to just be careful.

    Harris, a liberal, is doing a great job defining how liberals sometimes just go overboard to protect everyone, not matter what. You are too. Well Done. Some people just need isolating to protect others. Figuring out how to do that is hard work and not subjective to sound bites or generalizations.

    Hoodlums, to coin a phrase, are hoodlums, regardless of skin color, religious preferences, dress, etc. Most sane people can “sense them” without discriminating against them, personally, and take reasonable defensive action that MIGHT help a future “bad” situation. That is not wrong, it is just being “aware”.

    Our own President has gone far too far in trying to downplay the “bad” Islamic component of terror. ISIL is not Islam is a very misguided public statement, though politically correct, in the extreme, maybe. We must do better than that to define our enemies of any skin color, religion, etc. As well we are not in a race or religious war in the Middle East. But a war, you bet we are, against ……….?

    Anson

    Like

    • The post didn’t go “over the head” of King B.  We just obviously have disagreements over the issue. And that’s okay because we all have our own noggins.

      People sometimes forget that Harris is mostly speaking about Islam as a source of troublesome beliefs and not Muslims who believe in different interpretations of Islam. Obviously he has no serious problem with the millions upon millions of Muslims who think it is wrong to fly airplanes into buildings in the name of Allah. His problem is mostly with the Quran, as I understand him. And I think he is mostly right about what he says about it, just like I think I am right about what I say about a lot of the Old Testament. It’s just that almost all Christians these days don’t think it is okay to stone women for adultery and too many Muslims think “honor killings” are acceptable settlements of family disputes.

      Your example of getting on an airplane and keeping an eye on “Muslim (appearing) men” is profiling, Anson. I’m pretty sure that you wouldn’t have been able to tell whether the 9/11 hijackers were Muslims. But you make a point about being defensive. Of course if you are walking down dark streets you should be aware of the dangers, from black people or white people. That’s just common sense. I am suspicious of anyone I meet on dark streets. But sizing up men on airplanes who may or may not be Muslims is not the same thing. You may personally run into ten thousand Muslims on American airplanes and you will likely never meet a terrorist because almost all Muslims are not terrorists who want to use airplanes to kill.

      In any case, I have to address what you said about President Obama and the idea that he,

      has gone far too far in trying to downplay the “bad” Islamic component of terror. ISIL is not Islam is a very misguided public statement, though politically correct, in the extreme, maybe. We must do better than that to define our enemies of any skin color, religion, etc. As well we are not in a race or religious war in the Middle East. But a war, you bet we are, against ……….?

      First, George W. Bush made that same point about terrorists. And he went out of his way to say that we weren’t at war with Islam. And, of course, that is a wise thing for any American president to say for two reasons: a) it would make matters worse if it were not said, and b) we actually aren’t at war with Islam. We are at war with Islamist fanatics who want to do us harm.

      Second, ISIL is Islamic. There is no doubt about it. They call themselves that, just like the Ku Klux Klan calls themselves Christians and cites scriptures. Any Muslim or any Christian is free to dispute their claims—and thankfully most do—but we should pay attention to what people say their motives are and not simply ignore what they say. But I don’t expect President Obama or anyone else in power to say anything different from what he said. It is simply the best way of attacking ISIL, as we need Muslims to help us win the fight.

      Duane

      Like

  5. ansonburlingame

     /  October 16, 2014

    Well Duane,

    I will agree that I “profile” some people, not just Muslims or blacks. But to say I “profile only Muslims getting on an airplane” is wrong. If skin heads got on my airplane I would be aware of them as well. How can anyone act defensively unless things that might be dangerous are observed and registered in one’s brain as a potential threat. I don’t care the color of a car weaving down the road but I sure get out of its way, defensively if I see one.

    I think we both agree that all must be aware of possible danger. And we agree that such danger can come from just about anyone or anywhere. But I don’t worry about every person on an airplane. That is called paranoia I suppose. But if I see something or someone that might be ……, well ok I “profile everything” and ignore most of it. And THAT is in no way racist or bigoted or thinking in a paranoid manner, at least in my view.

    I have read the Quran, all of it, now. It is just Old Testament “stuff” in various forms in my view. As far as my own faith goes I ignore most of the Old Testament and simply read it as history. Sure I cherry pick a few spots to gain better understanding, like the Ten Commandments. But I have violated every one of those commandments as well, some many times, GDI!!

    But now that I think of it, maybe I will carry a non-metalic slingshot and a few big marbles when next I fly on a plane. Sure worked for David. I will also “profile” for targets but never shoot until the knife or gun comes out and used in a threatening manner, like Golitah did to David!! All that is a joke of course but Biblical, well maybe it is!

    So much for Islam. If millions want to follow the Old Testament fine, go follow it, in your own homes or even towns or countries. But as soon as you talk about AND shake your fist in my face in a threatening way, imposing that on me or mine, well where is my slingshot will be a response, but not a nuclear weapon or gun, either, up to a point at least.

    Finally, I quivel with you over Bush and Obama statements. Bush said we were not at war with Islam, and we weren’t. But we sure call it that, the Iraqi War in 2003 and beyond. But Bush did not say Al-Qaeda was NOT Islam, which they certainly were.

    Obama says this is still not a war, against ISIL AND adds ISIL is not Islam, which they certainly are, Islamic. Obama is wrong on both counts and Bush correct on both. We were at war against a segment of Islam, the Islamic Al-Qaeda and Hussein’s army. Still are as a matter of law, against Al-Qaeda, and Obama is using that Law to justify…….. And call it what you like, we are now at war with an Islamic ISIL. Obama and Kerry just won’t say that, for political reasons it seems to me.

    But that is quibbling, maybe.

    Anson

    Like

    • King Beauregard

       /  October 16, 2014

      “I will agree that I “profile” some people, not just Muslims or blacks. But to say I “profile only Muslims getting on an airplane” is wrong. If skin heads got on my airplane I would be aware of them as well.”

      I’m hard-pressed to fault you for a natural, instinctive reaction; it sounds like you temper it with a realization that you’re likely jumping the gun. It’s still profiling, but as you say, it’s virtually impossible to do away with profiling altogether, so all you can do is be aware of it and keep it in perspective.

      “So much for Islam. If millions want to follow the Old Testament fine, go follow it, in your own homes or even towns or countries.”

      Just wanted to point out that it’s not really clear how many people in the Middle East want to party like it’s 1999 BCE. I’ve linked to a couple pictorals of what Afghanistan and Iran used to look like before the fundamentalists took over; it didn’t look like the common man was thinking, “you know what this place needs? Sharia law.” Fundamentalists brought it, most likely a lot of people didn’t even ask for it, and some who did have probably been hit with buyer’s remorse.

      “I have read the Quran, all of it, now. It is just Old Testament “stuff” in various forms in my view. As far as my own faith goes I ignore most of the Old Testament and simply read it as history.”

      I would not be surprised to hear a great many Muslims, even in the Middle East, feel the same way.

      “Sure I cherry pick a few spots to gain better understanding, like the Ten Commandments. But I have violated every one of those commandments as well, some many times, GDI!!”

      Killing, stealing, perjury, adultery? If you don’t own a Harley we need to get you one.

      Like

  6. Dan Stewart

     /  October 17, 2014

    “Some beliefs are so dangerous it may be
    ethical to kill people for believing them.” –Sam Harris

    Sam Harris claims Greenwald and Aslan each knowingly retweeted the Twitter post that took his words out of context (above), crossing the line into defamation.

    That’s a serious allegation. But, is it accurate? Did Greenwald and Aslan really take Harris’ words out of context, misrepresenting his views? Or, is the tweet’s accusation a logical inference of the premise Harris advocates?

    Harris admits the quoted words are his and zealously defends the proposition they represent. No doubt he believes in its philosophical justness (insofar as we can ever know what anyone truly believes) and supports it as sound public policy.

    But Harris concedes the quote is the “most easily misunderstood sentence” in his book and says the “words do not mean what they appear to mean” (a tenuous starting point for any defamation claim). So, what is this apparent meaning? Could it possibly be something that would cast Harris in a light that fits the description in the post?

    Harris’ proposition says that if a person holds a very dangerous belief, and they are beyond persuasion or capture, the state may ethically kill them. He rationalizes this by saying such dangerous beliefs inspire the believer to commit acts of extraordinary violence. However, under Harris’ proposition no prior act of violence is required to justify the killing. The belief alone is enough.

    So if the ‘Harris Proposition’ asserts that a person who holds a dangerous belief can, under certain conditions, be killed by the state, then does it not follow that if members of a group all hold the same belief the state can kill the whole group?

    Harris is a prominent critic of Islam and Muslims. He says the Koran instructs Muslims to wage violent jihad against infidels, an injunction he says believers take literally. According to Harris, 20% of Muslims are potential terrorists. He has repeatedly warned that Islam poses an existential threat to the West and argues we should be at war with Islam, not terrorism. He’s remarked, “the people who speak most sensibly about the threat of Islam are the fascists.”

    If Harris is right about Islam, his proposition justifies killing Muslims en masse.

    Does this suggest Harris holds what a reasonable person might consider genocidal, fascistic or maniacal views?

    Based on his apparent meaning, the objective answer is yes. The Twitter post reflects the inescapable implications of Harris’ proposition. Taken to its logical conclusion, the proposition ultimately justifies an absurd state policy of lethal violence waged against members of a religious group, who need commit no prior crimes, based solely on presumed beliefs.

    If anything does, this proposition constitutes the most dangerous belief imaginable. Here one is tempted to make the ironic point that Harris’ proposition is so dangerous it qualifies him for dispatch under his own rule —but only a maniac would advocate such a view.

    Like

    • King Beauregard

       /  October 20, 2014

      Here is Harris’s comment, with plenty of context:

      The power that belief has over our emotional lives appears to be total. For every emotion that you are capable of feeling, there is surely a belief that could invoke it in a matter of moments. Consider the following proposition:

      Your daughter is being slowly tortured in an English jail.

      What is it that stands between you and the absolute panic that such a proposition would loose in the mind and body of a person who believed it? Perhaps you do not have a daughter, or you know her to be safely at home, or you believe that English jailors are renowned for their congeniality. Whatever the reason, the door to belief has not yet swung upon its hinges.

      The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.

      I’ll give Sam Harris maybe a half star for stating that the connection between belief and behavior is necessary: a belief that is never acted on is harmless. On the other hand, he is also saying that some beliefs inexorably lead to action, so the belief itself is tantamount to behavior, and Sam is indefensibly fuzzy on this point. He suggests that one’s child being tortured might be something that would force a person to act; I’ll give him that one. But what else, Sam? Even you acknowledge it’s an extraordinary claim, so perhaps you ought to flesh it out? You ought to provide specific examples: what beliefs, and what makes the beliefs themselves so dangerous. You can’t just go from “some beliefs are inherently dangerous” to “therefore endless war in the Middle East” without actually making your case.

      More on what’s wrong with you, Sam. You say that torture is incitement to action in the bit I just quoted, yet in recent essays you’ve championed torture even if there’s only a one in a million chance any good will come of it. What the hell, Sam? Do you not see what you’re advocating?

      And then there’s this: “This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan”. No Sam, we didn’t go after al Qaeda over ideas, we went after them because of actions.

      Like

      • King Beauregard

         /  October 20, 2014

        … Overall, reading Sam in context, I’m left with the same feeling I have when reading George Will: a man who realizes he is arguing the indefensible, and chooses his words very very carefully to disguise what a wretched thing he’s arguing for. A less nuanced version of this, in dialog form, might go like this:

        “When you believe something, you’ll want to act on it. Like, suppose you found out your daughter was being tortured; wouldn’t you feel the need to do something about it?”

        “Well, sure. Probably go after them with a 2×4 myself.”

        “Right, and that’s the same thing with Islam; which is why we’re always going to be in a war of bullets with them. Because we’re in a war of ideas with them.”

        “Wait, what?”

        Like

        • A less nuanced version of this, in dialog form, might go . . .

          I like that approach, KB, and I agree about its applicability to George Will, et. al. If it were generally adopted there would be far fewer books for sale, eh? It would be nice if there were an app for that, distilling complexity. It could be called “Reducio ab nuancio.”

          It occurred to me in this discussion that the word “belief” is misleading in that it connotes something that either exists or does not, whereas it is really a continuum. In other words (where’s that app?), there are both strong and weak “beliefs”, with musing at one end of the scale and certitude at the other. And somewhere in the middle is a cognitive membrane which, once breached, enables action. In religion, Sunday Christians would be at one end of the scale and martyrs/ suicide bombers at the other.

          Like

          • Yes, and what Harris seems to be saying is this:

            a) it is possible to discern when, on your continuum, “Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others,” and, therefore,

            b) “If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense.”

            It seems to me that is a tenable view, and one that certainly doesn’t justify calling its proponent a “genocidal fascist maniac.”

            Liked by 1 person

      • “We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas,” says Harris. It seems to me that is true of every conflict in the history of warfare. Ideas, whether it is ideas of greed or power or national pride or religious doctrine or whatever you want to name, do inspire acts of violence as well as inspire acts of defense. I don’t see how that claim is controversial.

        What is obviously controversial is what Harris calls “an ordinary fact about the world in which we live,”  to wit, “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (he does not, by the way, say that statement is an “extraordinary claim”; he says it “seems” to be one, which is quite different). Now, granted, that is a much more provocative way of saying what that first statement says, but it seems to essentially say the same thing. Ideas inspire people to both commit violence and to defend against it, sometimes preemptively. Technically, most of the people we killed in Afghanistan (including the Taliban fighters) did not do anything directly to the United States; they only supported the “idea” that inspired those who did. Eventually the support for that idea, the jihadist idea, necessarily turned into fighting American troops, who went to Afghanistan to get those who engineered the 9/11 attacks. In that sense, Harris is right. We killed a lot of people for believing what we considered to be a “dangerous” idea, namely that it is theologically proper, and therefore morally justified, to kill innocent Americans in the name of Allah.

        Sure, Harris could have left that provocative sentence out of that paragraph and made the same point with other language. Perhaps he, and his argument, would have been the better for it. But whatever you think of the validity of his claim, or the way he expressed it, he does not deserve to be called a “genocidal fascist maniac” by anybody, let alone by people who fashion themselves as enlightened liberals. Nor do I think he deserves what you said about him (in the context of his position on torture, which I, too, have a problem with), that he is “not a good person.” I think liberals especially ought to be able to debate ideas, to discuss them with passion, without resorting to such things. Sam Harris is not Dick Cheney.

        Like

        • King Beauregard

           /  October 21, 2014

          “We killed a lot of people for believing what we considered to be a “dangerous” idea, namely that it is theologically proper, and therefore morally justified, to kill innocent Americans in the name of Allah.”

          No we didn’t. We killed them for acting on that idea in some fashion, for example joining up with the Taliban. Now there is still some grey area in there — not every Jihad Joe necessary wants to kill if it can be helped, some of them have to be conflicted, etc. But that’s still a far cry from killing people because they happen to like what a given preacher is saying. And as near as I recall, not even Dick Cheney called for the killing of all Muslims who opposed us; we did take prisoners, did we not? Dick Cheney is not Sam Harris, that’s for sure.

          “Nor do I think he deserves what you said about him (in the context of his position on torture, which I, too, have a problem with), that he is “not a good person.” I think liberals especially ought to be able to debate ideas, to discuss them with passion, without resorting to such things.”

          Some ideas come with moral baggage that cannot simply be ignored. This isn’t like an ethics class trolley problem (“send the trolley down the track that for sure kills 5 people, or down the track that kills 10 people but one of them may be a terrorist?”) where the starting assumptions are a respect for life and a desire to minimize suffering; Sam Harris is in favor of torture even if there’s only a one in a million chance of it doing any good, which is to say, even though it will do no good. If I erred in saying he’s not a good person, it’s because I didn’t go far enough. Sam believes monstrous things, that makes him a monster by choice. Sure is a good thing I don’t believe in killing people just for harboring monstrous ideas.

          Like

          • I won’t try to dissuade you regarding your opinion of Sam Harris as a person. Obviously you think he has committed some kind of horrific intellectual crime against humanity and you have expressed your disgust with great passion. But I find the following way too much:

            But that’s still a far cry from killing people because they happen to like what a given preacher is saying. And as near as I recall, not even Dick Cheney called for the killing of all Muslims who opposed us; we did take prisoners, did we not? Dick Cheney is not Sam Harris, that’s for sure.

            That is a fairly gross distortion of what Sam Harris has written. But, again, I won’t take the time (which I don’t have right now) to address each distortion because I don’t think it would be profitable.

            What I will continue to press, however, is the essence of our war against the Taliban, who, I must insist, did us no direct harm. Their initial offense against us was allowing al-Qaeda terrorists, including bin Laden, to plan and execute the 9/11 attacks against us. And after the attacks, their fatal offense was in failing to accede to our demands that they serve up to us al-Qaeda leaders as well as the terrorists they were training. We also demanded that they close the training camps those leaders were operating, and then allow us to go in an inspect those camps. In other words, in the context of what we have been debating here, we were demanding that they reject the idea behind al-Qaeda and accept our idea of justice. Because they didn’t do that, they went bye-bye at the hands of a U.S.-led coalition. Many Taliban members were killed, essentially, for their ideas. They supported people that we were after and they paid a price for that. You might say that was unjustified or you might not. But you can’t say that the Taliban didn’t suffer on account of their affection for the idea behind al-Qaeda. They most certainly did.

            Duane

            Like

            • King Beauregard

               /  October 21, 2014

              “Many Taliban members were killed, essentially, for their ideas.”

              They were killed for the whole pointing-guns-at-us-when-we-didn’t-want-them-to thing. At this point we can discuss the ironies and hypocrisies of war — how may Taliban were killed for being nothing more than a speed bump between us and the guys we actually wanted to kill for killing a completely different set of people — but we didn’t shoot at the Taliban because of the ideas in their heads, but because of the guns in their hands.

              An opinion, and it’s neither here nor there: you want Sam Harris to be right more than he actually is right. I could be wrong about that, on at least a couple fronts.

              Like

              • KB,

                I admire Sam Harris very much, not because I want him to be right but because I value the quality of his analysis, even if I don’t always agree with his conclusions. In the same way, I value what you have brought to this forum, even if we don’t always agree. Having said that, I want to make one last attempt to clarify what I am saying, beyond the idea that Harris doesn’t deserve to be called a “genocidal fascist maniac.”

                You said, “we didn’t shoot at the Taliban because of the ideas in their heads, but because of the guns in their hands.” Okay. But in order to understand the whole story, you have to ask why did they have guns in their hands in the first place? Guns that were aimed at us?

                Let’s say the police are hunting down a cop-killing fugitive and they come to my house because he was last seen there. They knock on the door and, without a warrant, angrily demand that I give up the fugitive, who happens to be a very close friend of mine. At this point, because I truly am harboring the cop-killing fugitive, I have two choices, two ideas I can pursue. I can give up the fugitive or I can close the door. What decision I make will be based on what is in my head: do I believe my fugitive friend was justified in killing a cop and do I believe it enough to ignore the warrant-less but angry police? If I do, then I can expect the police to, at some point, come in—with guns drawn—and get my cop-killing friend and either arrest him or kill him.

                It is here that I will place Harris’ language:

                The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.

                The Taliban chose, first, to close the door to our demands regarding their terrorist friends. Then when we went in to get them, they chose to fight it out—all because they did not want to give up al-Qaeda. It’s in that sense that they were killed for a belief they held. The guns they had in their hands were simply instruments to defend the idea in their heads.

                To me, that is all Harris is saying in that paragraph. He’s making the case that certain Muslims, not all or most, have dangerous ideas in their heads—like it is okay to kill Americans in the name of Allah—and that much blood will be spilled as we attempt to defend ourselves against those ideas.

                Finally, as I think about all this, I have concluded that Harris would have been much better off if he had simply left out of the paragraph those two controversial sentences. Here’s how it would have read:

                The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.

                Do you have a problem with that paragraph?

                Duane

                Like

                • King Beauregard

                   /  October 22, 2014

                  That’s better, but I still have problems, because Harris isn’t elaborating on exactly which beliefs (not actions, beliefs) put a person beyond the reach of reason and into the “kill” zone. I think he is aware of that, and is using the ambiguity to extend the argument into territory he couldn’t directly defend.

                  There’s a certain circularity to Harris’s argument too, even in the redacted version. Are some beliefs inherently dangerous? Sure, the kind of beliefs that drive you to kill. How do you know those beliefs are dangerous? Because they drive you to kill. Why, then, spend any time in the realm of beliefs at all, when actions are both the problem and the evidence of the problem? What does Harris hope to gain by dwelling on the beliefs and not the actions? (I have a guess.)

                  For the sake of vagueness, let’s say three Alvians are listening to a preacher who exhorts his followers to shoot the Krebish. One of the followers is sympathetic but thinks shooting the Krebish is a tad extreme. One of the followers thinks shooting the Krebish is a good idea but he has a family to feed so he’s not going to act on it. But the third follower thinks shooting the Krebish is a good enough idea that he is going to go ahead and do it himself. Which of the Alvians have inherently dangerous ideas in their heads? Which of them are enough of a threat to justify their immediate killing and/or capture?

                  As you know, I’m as big a drone-lover as you’ll find on the Left, but I do not believe in going after people because they may want me and mine dead. I believe in going after them because they have taken at least some steps towards that goal, such as joining al Qaeda.

                  Like

                  • Following with interest, I can’t help but note that KB’s point here is similar to mine relative to “belief” being a continuum and not an absolute.

                    Like

                    • I would agree with that but I would also note, as you did previously, that some beliefs on the continuum are absolute and extreme. That is the kind of beliefs we are talking about when we are talking about Islamist fanatics. And Harris has gotten himself into hot water with some liberals because he says that not enough of them are taking seriously the large number of Muslims (absolute value, not as a percentage) who sympathize with those extremist beliefs.

                      Like

                  • 1) As far as the controversy over his remarks on Islam, I think Harris has explicitly elaborated on which beliefs “put a person beyond the reach of reason and into the ‘kill’ zone.” That is exactly why he has been called names by liberals. There isn’t much ambiguity in his condemnation of the frighteningly uncivil passages in the Quran that a small but powerful minority of Muslims take seriously enough to act on and that a larger group of Muslims have at least some sympathy with.

                    2) Harris dwells on beliefs because he, correctly in my view, finds a particular set of beliefs held by Muslim fanatics to be at the center of the problem we face from terrorism. Most actions are preceded by beliefs, whether it be religious or moral or political or any other kind. It only makes sense to attack at the point of beliefs, in hopes that bringing attention to certain unacceptably dangerous beliefs (in a civilized world) will create an environment of intolerance for those dangerous beliefs and, as best we can, minimize their reproduction. You might say he hasn’t done a good job of doing that, but I don’t see how you can say that he, or all of us who find certain beliefs disturbing and dangerous, shouldn’t focus on beliefs even if we still have to deal with the actions that follow them.

                    3) To answer your Alvian questions: Assuming certain things about the Krebish, all three Alvians have “inherently dangerous ideas in their heads.” But only the third one, the one who has decided to “do it himself,” is ripe for capture or killing. This essentially makes Harris’ point that “Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others.” Notice the word “certain” there. That means, as in the case of the other two Alvians, that some beliefs aren’t as dangerous as others and don’t require defensive action. The fact that some do seems to me to be obvious. If someone says they are going to kill President Obama, must we wait until they have tried to do so before we act?

                    4) Which leads to your last point about drones and preemptive killing. I have much sympathy with this position for obvious moral reasons but also because the precedent such preemptive actions set can be misused and abused by less thoughtful leaders than President Obama. That being said, let me examine more closely this paragraph you wrote:

                    As you know, I’m as big a drone-lover as you’ll find on the Left, but I do not believe in going after people because they may want me and mine dead. I believe in going after them because they have taken at least some steps towards that goal, such as joining al Qaeda.

                    I again use the example of assassinating the president. Obviously if someone has declared his or her intention to kill Obama, it would be beyond foolish to wait until he or she actually tried to do so. Same way with other kinds of crimes, like wanting to have sex with minors. Essentially, many of the stings set up to catch those kinds of predatory criminals are in fact just ways to prove what was in the potential perpetrator’s head. In many cases, the cops don’t use minors at all, but use adults posing as minors to lure in the predator. So, in essence, they have not been arrested and convicted for actually having sex with a minor or even talking to a minor about having sex. They have been arrested for thinking they were about to have sex with a minor. Is that an appropriate way to catch those guys or not?

                    You said “I do not believe in going after people because they may want me and mine dead” unless they take “some steps towards that goal.” Agreed. And I agree that joining al Qaeda is one of those steps, one that might lead to a drone shower. But what about merely harboring al Qaeda members? What about giving them aid and shielding them from capture? It seems to me that we are not obliged to make such fine distinctions between being a member of al Qaeda and being its handy benefactor. The only obligation we have is to insure, as best we can, that innocents are not victims of our strikes.

                    Duane

                    Like

                    • King Beauregard

                       /  October 22, 2014

                      “There isn’t much ambiguity in his condemnation of the frighteningly uncivil passages in the Quran that a small but powerful minority of Muslims take seriously enough to act on and that a larger group of Muslims have at least some sympathy with.”

                      You keep talking about beliefs, but then you also keep feeling obligated to make mention of actions as the necessary step for someone to be killzone’d.

                      Police stings are not “in essence” about beliefs, but about what actions one is willing to take. The person may be acting on false information, but nevertheless is demonstrating willingness to act. That is also why stings are invalid in the case of entrapment, because they don’t demonstrate willingness to act so much as susceptibility to temptation. In neither case are beliefs themselves illegal, just actions.

                      Again I could be wrong, but I think you really want Sam Harris to be right about this, and I feel like you’re blurring the distinction between belief and action so that Sam can be right about belief itself, when he’s right only in the case of action. Personally, I think Sam is looking for a shortcut that allows him to say go from “Islam” to “intolerable threat” without the intervening steps that I believe are necessary in a fair, rational, humane world. Show me a Muslim, Jew, Christian, Alvian, Krebish, or even a Thonik who is willing to kill a bunch of civilians, and while I may be interested in finding out what motivates them, it’s exclusively their actions that make me feel they need to be stopped.

                      Like

                    • No one ever accused me of being kind to dead horses, my friend, so…

                      You mentioned “demonstrating willingness to act.” Exactly. Not acting but merely demonstrating what is in your mind in terms of your intent to act. I don’t know how that could be clearer. People go to jail, for instance, for merely demonstrating that they believed they were about to have sex with a 14-year-old girl when in fact they weren’t. They weren’t even talking to a 14-year-old girl but often to a very hairy deputy sheriff via the Internet.

                      Likewise, your example of someone merely joining al-Qaeda being enough to merit a drone strike indicates that you are sanctioning their deaths, again, for what is (or what you think is) in their minds. For all we know, they may be joining the group out of some kind of psychological need; they may be mentally ill; they may have been pressured into doing so. Yet, you (and I) presume that because they so joined (an act) that gives us the right to kill or capture them because we assume they have evil intent (a belief that it is justified to kill Americans). If there were not a set of certain anti-American beliefs associated with al-Qaeda, we wouldn’t give a damn who joined. It is the beliefs that make people who join, regardless if they have done anything to harm Americans, ripe for our attacks.

                      One last thing. Let’s suppose a new Islamist group, one not related to any group now known, was formed and their leader said the following: “We love Allah and we will kill Americans in his name, given the opportunity.” Must we wait for them to actually try to kill Americans before we strike them?

                      Duane

                      Like

                    • Duane,

                      I know, I know, I’m late to the game. And it’s probably gone on too long. But you said something in your most recent response to King that really set me back in my chair.

                      You wrote: “Let’s suppose a new Islamist group, one not related to any group now known, was formed and their leader said the following: “We love Allah and we will kill Americans in his name, given the opportunity.” Must we wait for them to actually try to kill Americans before we strike them?”

                      That, of course, is the nut in this whole debate. Words (beliefs) are not actions (killing Americans.) So I agree with King on this. What if the leader of your new Islamic group said, “We love Allah and we will kill Chinese people in his name, given the opportunity.” Would the Chinese be justified in attacking this group or its members on the basis of this threat? Or, should they take a more reasonable course and keep an eye (or an ear, or an iPhone, or an internet connection) on them to see how far they are going to make good on the threat?

                      In this country, we have free speech, due process, and the rule of law. Are we to abandon those important principles as an appropriate response to a threat from a relatively small bunch of whackos? And that assumes that the leader is speaking for all the group’s members. So, we run the risk of taking out some members who are in there under duress or mental illness, etc.

                      But, again, King has made those same or very similar arguments. I agree with his logic. Therefore, I think we should stay with first principles. Otherwise, we are hypocrites. Then again, the whole world knows we’re hypocrites anyway.

                      Herb

                      Like

                    • Let me say that we are talking about a very tiny number of possible situations here, Herb. All I am saying is that the number is not zero. I’ve given the child sex stings as everyday examples of what I am talking about. Do you disagree with the way law enforcement catches those people? Do you disagree with the notion that one can be arrested and convicted and jailed merely for believing one is about to engage in sex with a minor? What if, at the last moment, the person would have genuinely changed his mind and not really gone through with the police-constructed act? Does that count? And, if so, how does one go about proving that he really wouldn’t have gone through with the act, that it was just a fantasy he was taking right up to the brink?

                      Further, let me try this: Let’s suppose a person here in the United States said the following: “I love Allah and I think Barack Obama is Allah’s enemy. I will, therefore, kill Barack Obama if I have the opportunity.” Stipulating that the person is not mentally ill (as most people who threaten the president are) and that he is an adherent of Islam and he possesses, legally, a firearm or firearms, can he, and should he, be arrested merely for what he said? And if he resisted such an arrest, should force, to the point of killing him if necessary, be used against him?

                      Duane

                      Like

                    • King Beauregard

                       /  October 22, 2014

                      ““We love Allah and we will kill Americans in his name, given the opportunity.” Must we wait for them to actually try to kill Americans before we strike them?”

                      What would anyone do, Duane? Keep an eye on them to see if they’re just full of shit or whether they are actually making an effort, and if they are serious, you treat them like the enemy. Not because of their words, not because of their beliefs, but because of their actions.

                      Dude, I’m getting sick of this, so I’m out. Two points:

                      1) I wouldn’t have a problem with Harris, and I bet Affleck and most liberals wouldn’t either, if he spoke strictly to actions (which are fairly concrete) and didn’t keep trying to sneak into the realm of beliefs (which are ultimately unknowable in the other person but are a great way to come to predetermined conclusions).

                      2) Here’s a video of ISIS on the rampage:

                      Their reach knows no bounds.

                      Like

                    • For some reason, this was my favorite part of the hilarious video:

                      monkey with gun

                      Like

    • Dan,

      I hate to be picky here, but you said Harris “argues we should be at war with Islam, not terrorism.” As far as I know, he has never made such an argument. What I have heard him argue is this:

      This is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims. But we are absolutely at war with those who believe that death in defense of the faith is the highest possible good, that cartoonists should be killed for caricaturing the prophet and that any Muslim who loses his faith should be butchered for apostasy.

      Most Muslims in the world don’t believe such nonsense, as Harris has repeatedly acknowledged, but he does say,

      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.

      I, too, think we have reason to worry about that “benighted religious solidarity” in too much of the Muslim world. But that is different from saying we are at war with Islam. We are generally at war with the idea of jihad, as it is directed against us and the Western world, but more specifically, and more to the point, we are at war with those who take the idea seriously enough to either attack us or plan attacks against us, as well as those who support them.

      Finally, largely because you misunderstand Harris on the above point, you then justify calling him a “genocidal fascist maniac” for his controversial statement, “Some beliefs are so dangerous it may be ethical to kill people for believing them.” You say,

      Taken to its logical conclusion, the proposition ultimately justifies an absurd state policy of lethal violence waged against members of a religious group, who need commit no prior crimes, based solely on presumed beliefs.

      Of course that is not the logical conclusion of his overall argument, when it is seen in its context. You ignore the key sentence in understanding what he means:

      Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others.

      You see? It is only those beliefs that inspire adherents “to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others” that would make it “ethical to kill people for believing them.” Contrary to what you say, Harris is not trying to justify “an absurd state policy of lethal violence waged against members of a religious group, who need commit no prior crimes, based solely on presumed beliefs.” As I wrote elsewhere, we killed a lot of members of the Taliban, who had done us no direct harm, mainly because they supported those who did do us harm. In effect, they were killed for their support of the “idea” of a jihad against America. Was that wrong? I don’t think so. Neither is Harris wrong when he says, as a summation of his argument, “We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.”

      Having said that, one could argue that the provocative way he expressed his argument in that now infamous passage has undermined his efforts at persuasion. But as I have said elsewhere, liberals should be especially careful in tossing around epithets like “genocidal fascist maniac” at fellow liberals. That’s what the other side does and we should be better than that.

      When it comes down to it, all Harris is arguing is that liberals should take more seriously the ideas wrapped up in Islamic fundamentalism. Because there are lots of Muslims with guns and bombs and dreams of paradise who do.

      Duane

      Like

  7. ansonburlingame

     /  October 18, 2014

    Dan.

    Good comment and I understand where you are coming from. Certainly in America, under American law and “values” if Hitler himself, an American citizen, stood in a town square and proposed Facism, holocaust, etc. we would not, nor should we, “kill him”, or even arrest him.

    BUT…… I wonder just how better off the world might have been had Hitler been shot on the street in say 1938, just before he invaded Poland, by a “spy”. Legally, by American law, and even values I suppose, such would be illegal or wrong to do. But, again ………?

    Like it or not, geopolitics is ultimately the use of power. Some countries have nothing like our values or laws and do as they please to try to kill us all the time. Must we first make a case in courts based on American law before we attack, and even kill them “over there”?

    Many, you I suppose, would say yes. I will respectfully disagree however. Exercising geopolitical power, secretly and forcefully has long been done and will continue to be done until the “Kingdom of God” comes to Earth, in my view. Even Obama has now done so, secretly using drones to ……., even an American citizen “over there”. I seriously doubt even International law prevents such action by Obama but he would certainly violate American law by killing someone without first ……, in America, which of course I doubt, but don’t know for sure, that he has done.

    Winning geopolitically, which is required by most Americans of any President, is very important, at least in my view. That end is honorable and right, for all Americans. So we are discussing the means to win outside of America, against sometimes despicable, by anyone’s view, opponents. I do my best to remain true to American values but still win, geopolitically. Most of the time there is no internal conflict in such matters, for me. But in this case, against another really despicable opponent, radical Islam, well meeting fire with fire sounds good, to me at least.

    Then of course we can re-discuss the use of “torture” as well. But as before, I would ask you to define it before coming after me. In the “end” we in fact learned a lot by waterboarding three people, one in particular, KSM as I recall. And in the end, no harm came to him, neither mentally nor physically, though I am sure it “hurt a lot” as he felt that he was drowning, but wasn’t. Touchy subject yes, but not a slam dunk, always against, at least in my view as well.

    The decidedly liberal view offered in West Wing (fictional TV), addressed such issues. So far, in four seasons, the liberal and fictional President has assasinated one diplomat (illegally) and invaded an African country simply because “they needed killing” so to speak. Fiction yes, but ……. He also “lied to the American people” was censored by Congress (GOPers) and then re-elected!!! Is all that bad fiction or just pragmatic and effective reality?

    Anson

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    • Anson, reminds me of a quote from Albert Eisenstein, ““I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

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  8. ansonburlingame

     /  October 21, 2014

    Herb,

    In Kissinger’s World Order, he quotes some philosopher in saying World Peace will only be achieved in the peace of a human graveyard. Chilling thought first said about 200 years ago, long before nuclear weapons.

    Anson

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Duane,

    I’m responding to your reply to me posted 9:23am, 10-23-14. But I am moving the margins out here instead of getting squeezed to the right even further.

    Anyway, you mention “child sex stings” as an example of free speech that’s not free, it’s criminal. In that case, many, if not all, of those “stung” have already broken the law, they didn’t just threaten to.

    Then you’ve got the one guy who responded to an internet dialogue with an overweight, middle-aged, deputy sheriff posing as a 13 year old girl. If the guy shows up for the meeting, then that’s a sign of intent, an action, and he’ll be cuffed and hauled off to the big house with the iron bars. Now, if the guy doesn’t show up, and there is no other evidence of any pedophilia, then he’s free to go. It’s all a matter of context.

    Now back to your terrorist threats. Your example is of a hypothetical terrorist living in the U.S. of A. saying, “I love Allah and I think Barack Obama is Allah’s enemy. I will, therefore, kill Barack Obama if I have the opportunity.” Again, it’s a matter of context. If this guy has the wherewithal to carry out the threat, then he would probably be arrested and prosecuted. Otherwise, he’ll no doubt get a stern talking to.

    Obama receives about 12,000 death threats a year. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Threatening_the_President_of_the_United_States) All of them are illegal, but almost none are prosecuted. Again, it’s the context that’s important.

    But we don’t need to focus just on terrorists. We’ve got your KKK, and your White Supremacists, and your ad hoc, well armed paramilitary militias. (See Timothy McVey, Randy Weaver, and David Koresh.) Should we arrest all these folks for their hate speech and the associated, but mostly implied, death threats they make?

    Your original hypothetical terrorist group threatened “death to all Americans.” If this group is located overseas, then you’ve got international law to contend with. There are no prohibitions in international law I could find that would make such speech “illegal.” You’ve also got a non-state militant organization with common cause. It’s one thing for an individual to make a “credible” threat, but quite another for a group of several thousand to make it. And what if a few Americans are members? Would they be killed? Context.

    Then there is the specificity issue. It’s one thing to threaten to kill all Americans. But it’s another thing to threaten to kill all Americans with the name Duane, and yet another thing to threaten to kill all Americans named R. Duane Graham!

    Well, at the end of the day, it’s my opinion that all speech in this country, including death threats, is considered free unless there is a reasonable expectation that such threats will be carried out. That includes planning, acquisition of munitions, and a particular cause associated with the threat. In other words, affirmative actions, not just threats made in the heat of passion are what should count, as Sam Harris says in so many words

    You remember the old nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” I think we need to keep that in mind if we want to have a free society. I believe that speech is one of the important liberties we have that keep us from falling into an Orwellian dystopia.

    Herb

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    • Herb,

      You wrote, “I believe that speech is one of the important liberties we have that keep us from falling into an Orwellian dystopia.” Yep. Me, too. But that’s not the same as saying that all speech is permissible. The Supremes established that a long time ago.

      As far as the issue at hand, I can’t let you off the hook that easily.

      Regarding the guy who has been duped by a fat deputy, you said that,

      If the guy shows up for the meeting, then that’s a sign of intent, an action, and he’ll be cuffed and hauled off to the big house with the iron bars.

      Okay, so what you are saying is that showing up to meet a fat deputy sheriff posing as a 13-year-old girl is a crime? How can that be? What is happening, in reality, is that the guy is being prosecuted and jailed for what he believed in his head not what he actually did to a 13-year-old girl. I don’t know why people aren’t willing to admit that. We essentially, in cases like sex stings involving minors, are imprisoning people for beliefs, in those cases false beliefs that they were actually dealing with real minors.

      And related to that, you didn’t deal with the possibility that a guy was playing out a fantasy up to but not necessarily including the actual act. Prosecuting a guy under those conditions would make fantasizing about having sex with minors—an activity of the mind—illegal. How do we know that he would have actually done the deed? We don’t. We assume he would have by what we assume was in his head.

      Likewise, you say the guy threatening Obama could be arrested and prosecuted based on his “wherewithal to carry out the threat.” I already stipulated he wasn’t mentally ill and had the ability to carry out the threat. So, the question remains: if he doesn’t act on the threat, but merely says he will if given the opportunity, should that be a crime? Apparently you don’t think so but the law disagrees with you.

      All I want to do at this point is establish that there are cases in which we do, in fact, jail people (and presumably would kill them if they resisted with force) for beliefs in their heads and that most people agree with that idea in a few limited cases. Once that is established, then Harris’ point doesn’t seem so absurd.

      Duane

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      • Duane,

        I think we’re quibbling at the margins here. We could go on ad infinitum with hypotheticals, but that won’t change our respective positions.

        I think the main difference on this issue is that I am more liberal than you in permitting and protecting virtually all speech. (A very unusual position for me to be in.) And just because SCROTUS says it’s so (with regard to free speech), doesn’t necessary persuade me.

        Censorship is a slippery slope. But the attempt at mind-reading is dangerous in an open society, except in very specific and provable cases.

        Again, we agree to disagree. But ain’t we havin’ fun?

        Herb

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  10. ansonburlingame

     /  October 24, 2014

    Glad to see this string made larger and I now return to the fray, with Duane and Herb.

    We are facing this issue, again, right now with both the Dr. with Ebola and the killer of cops in NYC yesterday.

    Is stupidity illegal? Usually such is not the case for sure. But the infected Dr. was STUPID. He KNEW he had been exposed, was arrogant enough to think he made no mistakes, came home and later found out …….

    I wrote a blog about a week ago on just such an issue. I focused the blog on MY views of what I would do in Joplin if I had come into the vicinty of an Ebola victim. IMMEDIATELY after such exposure, I would have self quarentined myself, in my home, telling my wife to get the dogs and go live with her son for 21 days. I would have remained in my home with zero contact, physical vicinity, with anyone, bar none. Only phone calls or hand signals would have been used to communicate, for 21 days.

    That to me is not wisdom, paranoia, etc. It is just common sense to me. And if I had a job that I needed to keep money coming in, I would have a very detailed phone or email conversation with my boss and ask for paid leave during my self imposed excile.

    Now the cop killer, the Muslim cop killer. Had the NYPD penetrated a Mosque and gained secret intelligence about that “crazy man” there would be screams of profiling. It seems the new and very liberal mayor of NYC has recently directed the NYPD to no longer do that, target Mosques to gain intelligence. OK Mr. Mayor, do you now take the responsibility to allow that man to roam NYC and attack two cops?

    Must NYPD do nothing until that man actually pulls out a hatchet to try to attack a cop(s). Must they even wait until he hits a cop with a hatchet before they try to arrest him? Just how much must law enforcement be constrained before taking a crazy man, a Muslim crazy man, or a Muslim that is maybe not crazy but intent on ….. off the streets, legally?

    That is now a burning issue right in our faces in this new and even more vicious war on terror. How do we prevent lone wolf attacks? Intelligence, intelligence, intelligence and more intelligence to find them before they attack is the only way, in my view to contain that threat.

    We must contain an invisible disease before it infects. We must contain lone wolves or groups of terrorists before they attack.

    How can any country contain deadly things and still have unlimited freedom to think and plan before ………

    This should not be a right, left political issue. It should be an issue about common sense, in my view. That doctor and that terrorist were threats to America BEFORE the cop started vomiting and the Muslim started striking with a hatchet.

    What to do with others, just like them? Going too far in either political direction is wrong. So where is the common sense middle in such debate?

    Anson

    Like

    • As far as dealing with what is being called “lone wolf” terrorists, I’m not sure how using “intelligence, intelligence, intelligence” would help in most cases. That is the nature of the problem. They are not part of an organized group. But I do think the widespread surveillance that is so controversial could play a part in finding people who try to contact ISIL and other terrorists groups. I have absolutely no problem with finding out who those people are and keeping an eye on them. In fact, I expect the government to do that sort of stuff.

      As far as Ebola, I think most of us would agree that caution is in order when one has been over to West Africa treating Ebola patients. But the fact is that Dr. Craig Spencer didn’t infect anyone. He was monitoring his symptoms and as far as we know he was following all of the procedures laid out by Doctors Without Borders, for whom he was working, risking his life. He obviously knows the science behind the disease. He was a professional who knew very well how devastating Ebola is if you catch it. That’s different from, say, the military which is going the extra mile with caution. Soldiers working on medical infrastructure in Africa are not doctors. They might not monitor themselves properly and I don’t have a problem with their being quarantined, but only if they have been exposed to people who were infected with Ebola. As far as I can tell, none of them are so exposed.

      I remind you that the family of Thomas Duncan, the Liberian who went to Texas and subsequently came down with Ebola, was very symptomatic when he was sent home from the hospital to his family. Yet none of his family members, and none of the workers who initially saw him and treated him, were infected. 

      Duane

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  11. For those who might be interested in seeing Sam Harris trying to defend himself in re the Muslim world, check out this video

    Unfortunately, the thing runs 3 hours! I could only take about an hour. My conclusion, although admittedly I only saw 1/3rd of it, is that Harris spends his time trying to wiggle our of what he has said/written about Islam. At best, he’s bad communicator, at worse, he’s a hypocrite in denial.

    Anyway, see what you think.

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    • I have watched almost the entire thing (thanks for bringing it to my attention), and I disagree with you about Harris “trying to wiggle” out of what he has said. The nature of that interview was that he was asked to defend various things he has said or written and, naturally, when one tries to clarify what one said, it sounds to the ear of someone who doesn’t like what he said that he is trying to wiggle out of it.

      In any case, as the interview progressed I became more impressed with ex-MSNBC host Cenk Uygur, who did not do a good job the first hour or so. He did, though, raise some fairly strong objections to Harris’ positions on, say, profiling, many of which I share. But the crux of the whole argument about Harris’ Islam arguments came about half-way through. Essentially, the biggest and most important disagreement is over how widespread the problem is with Islam and its true-believing adherents. Harris thinks the “fringe” is more mainstream than people want to admit. I will post a piece today or tomorrow showing why I think he may be right.

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