There are many lines that you can expect to hear on just about every episode of The Atheist Experience. One is “Tell me what you believe and why you believe it.” Another is “Promoting positive atheism and the separation of church and state.” However, I think one of the most important repeated lines is: “If you disagree with us, then we will try to get to your call more quickly.”
To me, that’s a vital component of intellectual honesty. Anyone can barricade themselves in a mental fortress of belief, deciding on what is true “in their hearts” early in life, and refusing to listen to any evidence to the contrary. However, if you want to have as many true beliefs and as few false beliefs as possible, you simply have to step out of your fortress and really listen openly to what people are saying who don’t agree with you. There is no other way to expose the false beliefs you hold and the true beliefs that you lack.
That’s why I generally want to make it a point in life to read the Bible, listen to Christian radio, argue with Jehovah’s Witnesses, and take all the callers I can.
That’s also why I’m kind of disappointed, though not really surprised, by the apparent terror that, ah, certain people seem to have these days over putting 9/11 terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on trial in a civilian court.
As I understand it, there are two major concerns at play here, both of them (not to put too fine a point on it) cretinous. One of them is that Mohammed will escape from jail and go on the most horrifying killing spree the world has ever known. The other is that if Mohammed is allowed to defend himself in court, then the dulcet tones of his voice spouting terrorist propaganda will surely incite more violence against the United States.
Ezra Klein masterfully dismantles both arguments in just a few short sentences. Regarding their escape:
These guys took down a plane with box cutters. They used crude weapons to attack a far more sophisticated and effective fighting force. The most fearsome of them was captured at home, in his pajamas. It’s not like we’re putting Magneto on trial and need to keep him away from metal filings.
And regarding letting him talk:
Trying these guys publicly, as well as holding them in normal prisons like common criminals, is good public relations. Being a terrorist is a more appealing prospect if the world’s sole superpower appears to cower before your might than it is if you end up trapped in the American legal system, forced to submit to endless cross-examination and consultation with attorneys and other bureaucratic humiliations. Lots of people want to be super villains. But who wants to be a henchman? Being held on a fortified military island and tortured by a country that can’t seem to get you to talk is a much more glorious finish than a long and dull trial that ends with you serving time in central New Jersey.
When you come right down to it, Mohammed is really just another extreme religious crackpot, and talking and listening to religious crackpots is what we on the Atheist Experience want to happen. We want it to happen because crackpottery thrives on remaining mysterious. If you can frame your crackpottery in a few pithy sentences appealing to some seemingly high minded ideals, then it sounds superficially convincing. But when you start probing their beliefs in depth, that’s when you get to have conversations like this…
“Tommy Davis previously denied the Xenu story, asking CNN reporter John Roberts if it ‘sounded ridiculous’ and saying the story was ‘unrecognisable’ to him. The Xenu story has also been denied by actor Tom Cruise and other famous Scientologists.”
“Wait. Mormons actually know this story and they still believe Joseph Smith was a prophet? …No, it’s a matter of logic! If you’re gonna say things that have been proven wrong, like that the first man and woman lived in Missouri, and that Native Americans came from Jerusalem, then you’d better have something to back it up. All you’ve got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat, and then couldn’t do it again when the translations were hidden!”*
“Religion has convinced people that there’s an invisible man… living in the sky. Who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn’t want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer, and burn, and scream, until the end of time. But he loves you! He loves you. He loves you and he needs money!”
That’s what we want to have happen with the beliefs of fuckwits like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. We want an American lawyer to stand up in front of this guy on the witness stand, and let him spout off his beliefs. And then we want our lawyer to shake his head in disbelief, and say “Mr. Mohammed, are you freaking kidding me????“
What we don’t want is for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to get away with no trial at all, or a tribunal under cover of darkness. We don’t want him to be executed without a chance to air out his horrific, vile sounding views. We don’t want to give people an excuse to make a martyr out of him without laying his idiocy bare for the entire world to see.
I’m sure some people will object that someone will hear his words and say “Hey, ya know? This jihad business sounds pretty reasonable to me.” And I’m sure that that’s true; I can imagine that there are probably a (very, very, very small) number of people who were not already looking to sign up for the terrorist lifestyle, but will be persuaded by Mohammed’s silver tongue to join the cause.
But you know what else? I’m willing to take that chance, because I’m seriously betting that the number of people who will be moved to sympathy for America and disgust for Mohammed and his ilk would tremendously dwarf the number of people who would fall for his recruitment speech.
I am firmly of the belief that you can’t prevent bad ideas from being heard, but you can shed light on them and make them look foolish. I think it’s the ideal of free speech that we should all strive for. If I didn’t think that, then I would have to conclude once and for all that our little public access show is a bust, simply on the grounds that we have allowed so many more bad ideas to get air time than would have gotten it otherwise.
Call me a naive idealist for having some faith in humanity that they can be dragged to a reasonable position. The ones to really watch out for are the small-minded, pathetic people polluting the airwaves, who are afraid to hear Khalid talk. Somehow they must feel that his beliefs are so reasonable and so seductive that millions of people will become America’s enemies just by listening to a defeated criminal speak on a docket. And frankly, I feel sorry for them, for the fear of the world around them that they must feel every day
* Note: It was pointed out in the comments that the quote about Mormonism from South Park, while funny, is not an accurate representation of the Mormon story.