Quote of the month:
"The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing." (Socrates)
Islam: A Short History, by Karen Armstrong, a manageable introduction to one
of the most influential religions of the world, indispensable to put the 9/11
events in the proper context.
terrorism, an Islamic source commenting on terrorism, holy wars and other
atrocities from the viewpoint of practicing Islam believers.
Design for a faith-based missile, by Richard Dawkins, a dark piece that
includes no nonsense.
Religious correctness and the Qur’an, by Paul Kurtz, a skeptic’s view of
terrorism and Islam.
of the Rational:
Essays About Nature
& Humanist Web
Warning: this article is not an exaltation of terrorism or a defense of Bin
Laden. But the very fact that I have to start with this disclaimer is a sad
commentary on the state of freedom of opinion and speech in contemporary US.
What I’d like to talk about here is what my compatriot Umberto Eco recently
referred to as “the subtle art of making distinctions,“ an art that seems
foreign to much of the post-9/11 discussion or to the thought processes of many
of our leaders.
Many commentators initially said that 9/11 brought about a dramatic shift in
the American psyche, and that this nation will never be the same after that
terrible day. Perhaps, but the change may be more superficial than we thought.
A few months after the tragedy, we have a Georgia company selling commemorative
medallions made with steel from the World Trade Center, and some families of
9/11 victims marching and suing to seek millions of extra dollars despite the
large amount of governmental and private help that was proffered in record
time. Bombing or no bombing, some Americans are still more attached to the
mighty dollar than to elementary standards of human decency.
Our government doesn’t seem to fare much better at the helm of a war-prone
president, son of a war-prone president. The US government, on the one hand,
insists in calling this a “war” against terrorism (even though, technically,
only Congress can declare war—and it hasn’t); but, on the other hand, it
refuses to treat its prisoners as POWs. Worse, since the Taliban were obviously
a ridiculously puny enemy for the mighty US, we are now looking for additional
ones, and Bush nonchalantly threatens Iran, Iraq and North Korea, lumping them
under the laughable label of the “axis of evil." Never mind that it is
difficult to see communist North Korea plotting together with Islamic
fundamentalists (or, for that matter, the mortal religious enemies of Iraq and
Iran working with each other). Worse yet, Bush’s irresponsible actions (for
which he gets a whopping 90% approval rate) threaten to simultaneously undo
years of work at reconciliation by the South Koreans and to throw the Middle
East in an even worse state of affairs than it already is.
As a byproduct of all this, Americans are seeing their civil rights reduced
and an already ballooning military budget further increased in the name of a
war that—we are told—will last at least seven years (did anybody notice that
that is exactly the span of time of two Bush administrations?). I don’t know to
what extent Bush is doing this with a cynical eye at maintaining power, or if
he is simply extremely naïve in his view of the world; but it is interesting to
note that leaders as far back as the Roman emperors have always realized that
the threat of military danger and terrorism is an extremely efficient way of
keeping your own people under control (the Romans tolerated border skirmishes
and used them to exercise their legions; similarly, the comment of an American
soldier sent to Afghanistan revealingly was that “This is what we are trained
to do, we had been inactive for too long.”).
I am most certainly not missing the Taliban. Heck, I think somebody should
have kicked their asses long ago. I have no sympathy for people who use
religion to subjugate women, annul civil rights and destroy priceless
historical monuments. What I am questioning is the assumption that, just by
bombing people, we will solve our problems. That is where Eco’s “subtle
distinctions” become important. We have to make a distinction between
condemning and firmly reacting to terrorist acts on the one hand and fooling
ourselves into thinking that such reaction will eradicate the problem. The war
on terrorism will never be won, just like the equally misnamed and misconceived
“war on drugs.” That’s because to solve these problems we first have to
understand their roots. Until we acknowledge that human beings will always go
after the easy pleasure of drugs and that people outside the US (especially in
the Middle East) have a justifiable rancor against America, we will not make
progress on either front. That this is the case should be obvious from the
similarly endless conflict that has engulfed Palestinian and Israelis. Their
differences are profound, cultural and historical, and cannot and will not be
solved by blasting each other to pieces.
Where does said anti-US acrimony come from? If you don’t know, you haven’t
paid attention. Even the European allies of the US have repeatedly taken action
against what they see as the cultural and economic imperialism of Americans,
and if you add the extreme poverty, ignorance, and religious fanaticism of many
people in Middle Eastern countries, you have the perfect recipe for disaster.
But it takes a much more serious commitment, and the art of making subtle
distinctions, to address the problem seriously. It requires a radical revision
of American foreign policy, and perhaps even a bit of a self-critical attitude
toward the sacred cow of free-market capitalism. But of course it is far easier
to keep bombing the “axis of evil“ instead.
We are told by countless bumper stickers that unity is what makes us great
and patriotism is proudly expressed with small flags on big SUVs. But what
makes this country great is diversity and its respect. To be a real patriot
means to support one’s government when it does the right thing, but be ready to
march against it when it takes the wrong turn. I know there already is a list
of “dissenting” and potentially subversive academics being kept since 9/11, and
this article will surely get me added to it. I still hope that Americans have
learned from their past mistakes and we are not about to spiral into a second
McCarthy era, but that would again require cultivating the subtle art of making
distinctions, realizing the difference between understanding and condoning. Are
we up for the real challenge?