WARNING: War, Death, Sam Harris
This is not an auspicious start. Harris begins by framing the (alleged) question he receives “in many forms” in the most severe characterization possible: “never.” Doubtless, people have asked Harris variations of that question, but by framing it in terms of “Why is it that you never criticize Israel” Harris deals from the bottom of the deck a bit – he’s making it easier for himself. He can just say, “Well, OK, here’s some criticism? Are we done?”
(0:0) Sam Harris: The question I have now received in many forms goes something like this: “Why is it that you never criticize Israel? Why is it that you never criticize Judaism? Why is it that you always take the side of the Israelis over the Palestinians?” Now, this is an incredibly boring and depressing question, for a variety of reasons.
Following that, we have what is – unfortunately – a very typical Sam Harris ploy: deriding a straw-man version of a prospective opponent’s argument. I had a philosophy professor in college who did this incessantly, and it was infuriating: “surely nobody in their right mind would accept this argument.” Basically, putting a rhetorical thumb on the scales against anyone who’d argue the opposite position. Harris uses these rhetorical flourishes often; no doubt he’s trying to help feed the stereotype of atheist thinkers as smug and arrogant.
We’re not off to a good start. But don’t worry, it gets worse.
Sam Harris: The first is that I have criticized Israel and Judaism. What seems to upset many people is that I’ve kept some sense of proportion.
Having framed the ‘opposing’ argument so that it’s easy to refute, Harris refutes it!
I think it’s not an unreasonable question to ask Sam Harris what he thinks about Israel/Palestine, and what his thoughts are about the situation. Per Argument Clinic, it would be a bad strategy to fix one’s position going into the discussion – asking “Why is it that you never criticize Israel?” is a bit of a give-away – one would ask, “Sam, as an author of books on moral reasoning, I’d like to know what you think of the Israel/Palestine conflict?” That invites a more careful response.
If one were suspicious of Harris’ motives, it might appear as though Harris is not arguing in good faith and is already trying to mis-characterize the presumed opposing position; remember, Harris is supposedly airing his opinion on this topic – why, then, is he setting up straw-men and demonizing opposing positions that are not actually being aired or defended?
Sam Harris: There are something like 15 million Jews on Earth at this moment. There are something like 100 times as many Muslims.
That’s very interesting. Harris just throws that out there, leaving us to expect it to support some conclusion. We’ll get to that, to be sure.
Meanwhile: There are something like 5 million Native Americans on Earth at this moment. [Update: See Consciousness Razor’s comment below; he is correct, I should have said “5 million Native Americans living in reservations in the US” but I was trying to echo Harris’ ‘on Earth at this moment…’ construction] Perhaps that fact will become relevant about the same time as Harris explains why the size of the Jewish population is relevant to the size of the Muslim population.
Sam Harris: I’ve debated rabbis who, when I assume that they believe in a god who can hear our prayers, stop me in mid-sentence and say, “why would you think I believe in a god who can hear prayers?” So, there are rabbis – conservative rabbis – who believe in a god so elastic as to exclude every concrete claim about him, and therefore nearly every concrete demand on human behavior. And there are millions of Jews – literally millions among the few million who exist – to whom Judaism is very important, yet they are atheists; they don’t believe in god at all. This is actually a position you can hold within Judaism, but it’s a total non-sequitur in Islam or Christianity.
Well, Sam, I defer to your expertise regarding non-sequiturs; that was a pretty excellent one right there.
Is Harris setting us up for some kind of argument that Jews are more atheistic than christians and muslims and therefore… What? Is Harris going to tell us that, for some reason, Israel has some kind of political privileges that are conferred because they are atheistic? This is going to be interesting! (Off in the distance I hear the rumbling tank-treads of the standard theist canard about “Stalin was an atheist and look at all the people he killed!”)
It seems slightly sketchy, to me, to talk about these “conservative rabbis” who are apparently willing to say whatever it takes to win a debate. I’m quite sure that Harris knows the tactic in which a believer suddenly gets very dodgy about the attributes of their god, in order to protect them from being criticized. Harris even refers to it, himself, “a god so elastic as to exclude every concrete claim about him” – so I don’t get the point here, other than that he’s trying to claim that some Jews are very atheistic. What he does not mention is that others appear to be quite fanatical. There are even Buddhists and Christian (“deists”) who lapse into atheistic-sounding spiritualism if you poke them hard enough. So what? Is Harris setting up a comparison about who is athier?
Sam Harris: So, when we’re talking about the consequences of irrational beliefs, based on scripture, the Jews are the least of the least offenders. But I have said many critical things about Judaism. Let me remind you that parts of the Hebrew bible – books like Leviticus, Exodus, and Deutoronomy, are the most repellent, the most cynically unethical documents to be found in any religion. They are worse than the Koran. They are worse than any part of the New Testament. But the truth is most Jews recognize this and don’t take these texts seriously. It is simply a fact that most Jews and most Israelis are not guided by scripture.
Suppose Harris is right, and “most Jews” – even a majority – recognize that Old Testament law is unethical and don’t take it seriously. So what?
Harris is setting up the exact reverse of an argument that he makes about Muslims: there are a few really violent ideologues who take the Koran way too seriously and kill people and perform acts of terrorism, therefore Islam is a bad religion. Here, Harris is setting up the idea that there are a majority of atheistic Jews and therefore… What? Therefore Israel is good? I wonder if this is going to turn out to be one of those situations where someone argues both sides of a position, then declares that they are right, because one of the two positions they held must be correct.
Sam Harris: And that’s a very good thing. Of course there are some who are; there are religious extremists among Jews. Now I consider these people to be truly dangerous and their religious beliefs are as divisive and unwarranted as the beliefs of devout Muslims. But there are far fewer such people.
For those of you who worry that I never say anything critical about Israel: my position on Israel is somewhat paradoxical. There are questions about which I am genuinely undecided. And there’s something in my position, I think, to offend everyone.
Someone who writes books about moral philosophy ought not to have trouble with this: the actions of a few are not the responsibility of a collective except to the degree to which the collective facilitates (actively or tacitly) those actions. The number or proportion of such actors is irrelevant except insofar as it serves as a proxy for the degree to which the collective is supporting those actors. That’s the reasoning behind our rejection of collective punishment as being immoral: you cannot punish a group for the actions of a subset or an individual because when you do so you are punishing people for something they did not do. So I find it odd that Harris is focusing on the relative number of fanatics in the Jewish population versus the Muslim population – it doesn’t make any difference whatsoever to our arguing that one action or another is moral or immoral. Picture me scratching my head thinking, “why is Harris investing so much breath on this?”
Harris sets the stage for some tone-trolling by warning that he may offend everyone, but still in the context of “you who worry that I never say anything critical of Israel.” I’m not one of those people; I’m not worried about anything. I want to hear what Sam Harris has to say about Israel/Palestine and then discuss whether or not it makes sense. I’m not going to get offended, either. If I have a critique to offer, it will be of the opinions and beliefs Harris offers. I happen to think that “offended” is a weak position from which to argue, so I try to avoid it. Sam Harris has no need to consider my feelings, or I his – offense isn’t the issue. I may think that something Harris says is glaringly wrong, dishonest, or even outright immoral and I’ll say so. Offering a critique of someone else’s ideas is not the same thing as being “offended.” I expect Harris to already know and understand that (he writes books about morals, after all!) so I’m going to assume that this is just more of his rhetorical tic where he can’t resist trying to put his thumb on the scales: if one disagrees with him, it’s because we’re thin-skinned and take offense easily – it’s not that Harris’ arguments are poor or contradictory, or whatever.
Sam Harris: So, acknowledging how reckless it is to say anything on this topic, I am nevertheless going to think out loud about it for a few minutes.
I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state. I think it is obscene, irrational, and unjustifiable to have a state organized around a religion. So I don’t celebrate the idea that there is a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, and I certainly don’t support any Jewish claims to real estate based on the Bible.
Sam Harris: Though I just said that I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state, the justification for such a state is rather easy to find.
Sam, you’ve got your thumb on the scales again, “rather easy”? Well, then, what’s all the fuss about?
Sam Harris: We need look no further than the fact that the rest of the world has shown itself eager to murder the Jews at almost every opportunity. So, if there were going to be a state organized around protecting the members of a single religion, it certainly should be a Jewish state.
This reasoning would also argue for a Native American ethno-state, an Australian Indigenous Peoples ethno-state, a Maori ethno-state, an Armenian ethno-state, a Hutu ethno-state, a Tutsi ethno-state, etc. on down the line. By Harris’ reasoning, every ethnic group that has been displaced or dispossessed should have an ethno-state.
Sam Harris writes books on morality, so I expect that he’s going to do a good job of explaining how “if A wrongs B, B can wrong C in return.” Because, if we frame the problem just in terms of the Middle East, we have “Austro/German/Russians try to murder the Jews therefore the Palestinians need to accept that a Jewish state is going to be built on top of them.” There is a lot of literature regarding the right to self-defense [fabr] and generally the arguments seem to cluster around the idea that resisting an aggressor is acceptable, but it doesn’t justify aggression against someone else in turn; morality is not a “trickle down” proposition.
Sam Harris: Now, friends of Israel might consider this a rather tepid defense. But it’s the strongest one I’ve got.
If that’s true, Harris probably should have heeded his own counsel and not offered his opinion. Because if that ‘tepid’ defense is all Harris has got, he should have continued to sit on the sidelines of this particular issue. But once Harris is in a hole with a shovel, he’s going to make dirt fly until he gets to the bottom of that hole.
Sam Harris: I think the idea of a religious state is ultimately untenable. Needless to say in defending its territory as a Jewish state, the Israeli Government and Israelis themselves have had to do terrible things. They have, as they are now, fought wars against the Palestinians that have caused massive loss of innocent life. More civilians have been killed in Gaza in the last few weeks than militants. Now, that’s not a surprise given that Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. Occupying it, fighting wars in it, is guaranteed to get women, children, and other non-combatants killed.
Harris recorded this piece while Operation Protective Edge was winding down (April 2014) [wik] About 2,000 Palestinians were killed and 10,000 wounded. 66 Israeli soldiers and 5 Israeli civilians were killed.
There are a few things here where it seems like Harris is minimizing the Israeli actions. First, and foremost, he accepted his own argument above (“the rest of the world has shown itself to be eager to murder Jews, therefore Israel”) in spite of its obvious sketchiness, and has now shifted his argument to be based on the assumption that Israel is defending its national territory and therefore has to do terrible things. Secondly, he implies strongly that the reason there were non-combatant casualties was because of population density.
Look at the casualty figures for the 2014 Gaza attack – the Palestinians suffered disproportionate civilian casualties, by a huge margin – yet the Israeli casualties were predominantly military. That is what you’d expect to find if you were seeing armed resistance against a military force, and a military force targeting civilian targets.
Harris also slides in “defending its territory” in order to tilt the moral landscape and basically declares that the Palestinians were the aggressors. At this point, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has become an endless “tit for tat” war of coup and counter-coup, so it’s hard to say who started what, but Hamas says they fired missiles into Israel in response for the assassination of some of their leaders, which missiles led Israel to attack Gaza with a military incursion that can only be described as a “punitive raid.” Harris, the author of books on morality, is trying to get us to lose track of the fact that a military force was used to attack civilians in response for another military force’s attack. That’s right back to “if A wrongs B, B can wrong C in return.”
Harris is right that Gaza has a high population density. Since that’s true, that argues more that it is wrong to fire artillery and drop bombs on Gaza because it is harder to only successfully pinpoint strike military targets. The US makes this bogus argument all the time, when it justifies “collateral damage” as acceptable because it’s awfully hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, sometimes. Yes, it’s hard; that’s what soldiers are supposed to do – the hard stuff. If the Israeli military had gone in and dug out the combatants who were firing rockets at Israel, and killed them, then I would say that’s a very different situation. What Israel did was not ‘defend itself’ it ‘attacked Gaza’s civilians’ and the casualty breakdown shows it.
As Harris says, Gaza is high density. That’s why the Israelis used white phosphorus air-burst artillery. [guardian] Harris is carefully editing his description of the situation to a degree that ought to be embarrassing, but doesn’t seem to faze him at all.
Sam Harris: And there’s probably little question that, over the course of multiple wars, the Israelis have done things that amount to war crimes. They have been brutalized by this process. That is: “made brutal by it.” But that is largely due to the character of their enemies.
Holy shit, Sam, did you just say that? That is a generic apology for every military atrocity, ever.
First off, yes, firing artillery at noncombatants is a war crime. Depending on who you talk to, using white phosphorus is a war crime. Having snipers shooting unarmed noncombatants is a war crime. It was a war crime when Lt. Calley’s troops did it in Vietnam at My Lai, it was a war crime when Wehrmacht and SS troops did it at Babi Yar. It was a war crime with Israeli soldiers did it in Gaza. It was also a war crime for Hamas to fire rockets at Israel (those rockets are too inaccurate to be selectively targeted at military targets). There are war crimes to go around.
But the “character of their enemies?” Harris grabs his shovel and makes dirt fly:
Sam Harris: Whatever terrible things it is that the Israelis have done, it is also fair to say that they have used more restraint in their fighting against the Palestinians than we, the Americans and the Europeans, have used in any of our wars. They have endured more worldwide public scrutiny than any society has ever had to while defending itself against aggressors.
That’s some really shiny “special pleading” right there.
Now, it’s time to consider the image Harris uses to background the audio file; a photo of a Hamas M75 rocket strike on Jerusalem. A great number of missiles have been fired into Israel; they very seldom hit anything, or do much damage. By choosing that illustration is Harris subtly putting his thumb on the scales, again? Look, Israel has suffered damage!
But that’s not enough for Harris, he has to tilt his argument even more: choosing his words carefully “while defending itself against aggressors” – implicitly, Israel is just defending itself. That works out to: “a bunch of people over here fire missiles so we defend ourselves by blowing up a bunch of noncombatants over there.” As I mentioned before, we could probably argue endlessly over what “aggression” means in this situation but that’s “he hit me first!” stuff that should be below the radar-screen of someone who thinks about morals and ethics so much that they write books about the topic. Janie punched Bobby, so Bobby is justified in beating the living snot out of Freddie, because that’s how morals work.
Harris is not arguing honestly; he’s just pretending. He is using language that minimizes the actions of the Israelis while minimizing the impact of those actions on the Palestinian noncombatants. Since Harris appears to be reading from a prepared script, I assume that he put some thought into his remarks – this is not simply random off-the-cuff conversation – he is manipulating the story by carefully choosing what he leaves out and the language for what he puts in. His choice of that particular picture is also manipulative. I’m not saying Harris should have accompanied his talk with dozens of photos of the damage to Gaza – but, well, those photos sure are easy to find. There are quite a lot of them.
Sam Harris: The Israelis simply are held to a different standard.
I would assume that, that being the case, they would behave better than they are. Is Harris saying that they’d be worse if nobody were watching?
Sam Harris: And the condemnation leveled at them by the rest of the world is completely out of proportion to what they’ve actually done.
One of the members of my high school wargaming club once said “Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘now look what you’ve made me do.'” Even if we grant Harris’ points, that Israelis are held to a different standard, and are getting disproportionate condemnation, how does that in any way, shape, or form, excuse their actions? If anything, it makes them worse because, implicit in the idea of “condemnation” is the idea that the international community, the “rest of the world” thinks that what they are doing is wrong. Harris’ argument here makes no sense at all – in the face of condemnation for your actions, you are called upon to even more carefully justify them – not to complain that you’re not a criminal because people keep watching you and complaining about your past crimes.
Remember, this is coming from someone who writes books about morality; I expect better than this of him.
Sam Harris: It is clear that Israel is losing the PR war and has been, for years now. One of the most galling things for outside observers, about the current war in Gaza, is the disproportionate loss of life on on the Palestinian side.
Yes, yes, that is galling. Yes!
As I noted above, the reason it galls me is not because I am keeping score of “who murders whom” but rather that it indicates that the Israelis are targeting noncombatants. Harris, the moral philosopher, appears to be setting up for a round of ‘whose atrocity is bigger?’ – a game playable only by people with the morals of a Goering or a Churchill. “One murder is a crime, a million is a statistic” is not a defense for any murderer, ever.
(5:23) Sam Harris: This doesn’t make a lot of moral sense. Israel built bomb shelters to protect its citizens, the Palestinians built tunnels through which they could carry out terror attacks and kidnap Israelis. Should Israel be blamed for successfully protecting its population in a defensive war? I don’t think so. But there is no way to look at the images coming out of Gaza, especially of infants and toddlers riddled by shrapnel, and think of it as anything but a monstrous evil. It seems impossible to support them.
Wait, what? If I am reading that correctly, Harris is blaming the losing side of a war for losing. Losers! But then, to maintain his facade of fairness and humanism, Harris has to trot out the “infants and toddlers” trope – which is bizzare because Harris is trying to excuse Israel for fighting a defensive war – presumably it has to defend itself against those same infants and toddlers? Remember the incident where Israeli troops used naval gunfire to blow up a group of kids playing on a beach? [wik] That happened a few months after Harris recorded this piece, but I bet he would still argue that was justified because Hamas was shooting rockets elsewhere, therefore it was national self-defense.
Remember, the axis of Harris’ argument appears to be “if A wrongs B, B can wrong C in return.” If Hamas shoots rockets, Israel is morally justified in bombing other parts of Gaza.
But, in order to play things safe, Harris shovels a bit of humanism about the kids. Awwwwww, Sam.
There is a deeper question buried in all of this, which is “what is the relationship between a nation at war and an individual combatant?” It is an area of study by moral philosophers and it’s more complicated than it might seem, at first. Earlier I linked to Cecile Fabre’s book on defensive warfare; Sam Harris should read it. The short form is that, if one wishes to argue that one is defending oneself, one’s strongest moral position is to defend oneself and to only counter-attack against forces that are clearly being a aggressive. Note: “aggressive” not “threatening.” If I break into your house and you yell from upstairs, “I have a gun!” and I shoot and kill you, I am not acting morally; I’m engaged in a crime and I have just magnified my crime by adding murder to it. International Humanitarian Law takes this into account, actually, by not dealing with questions of “is a nation at war” – it deals with the actions of individuals in situations. So, for example, the ICRC would not say “The Israeli Army is guilty of a war crime here, here, and here…” They might say, “this Israeli soldier committed a war crime here, and those 3 Israeli soldiers committed a war crime there,” etc. In other words, the ICRC has actually thought about the morality of this stuff, and that’s part of why “the condemnation leveled at them by the rest of the world
is completely out of proportion” is what it is, and ought to be addressed. Let the world community assess that condemnation and determine whether it’s completely out of proportion – after all, if it’s completely out of proportion, that ought to be pretty obvious.
(5:27) Sam Harris: There’s no question the Palestinians have suffered for decades under the occupation. And this is where most of the critics of Israel seem to get stuck. They see these images and they blame Israel for killing and maiming babies.
Again, Harris promotes a ‘most people’ opponent that he can easily defeat with a swipe of his moral reasoning. The problem, of course, is that that’s not at all what ‘most of the critics of Israel’ get stuck on. Yes, it’s an important issue, but it’s not the only one, by a long shot. What Harris is doing, again, is tilting the playing-field by editing out other, severe, problematic, arguments that he does not seem to want to grapple with for some reason. For example, one of the issues I personally believe is extremely important is that the creation of Israel was done by using force to displace the people who were already living there; they were made into refugees and dispossessed. That is, under International Humanitarian Law, a crime against humanity. There are generations of Palestinians living in refugee camps in Jordan, because they were driven there while Israel was being created. That is a bit of a problem; it’s not something to just sweep under the table.
Harris makes what I’d call a strategic mistake when he refers to “the occupation” (5:27) for several reasons. First, it indicates that he actually knows something more about the history of Gaza than he’s talking about: he knows that it is an area under military control and the people in it are a conquered people. That’s a big deal because people under a military occupation have certain rights under International Humanitarian Law, one of which is resisting the occupiers. That resistance can even be violent, but since it’s conflict it ought to be against combatants and non-combatants should be kept off-limits. This opens that great big can of moral worms that I’d expect Harris to dive right into: the rights of an occupied people to resist violently against the military forces of the occupier. Not surprisingly, the ICRC has thought of that, as well: you are allowed to shoot an occupying soldier in the back and they are not allowed to round up 20 people from the village and shoot them in reprisal. His failure to come to grips with this issue is a tremendous oversight, but I simply don’t think he’s making a good faith analysis, or he’d be able to explain how it’s Israel’s right to defend its territory, when it’s defending occupied territory.
I do need to make one thing perfectly clear: I do not approve of Hamas’ attacks on Israeli noncombatants, at all. In my mind, that was a terrible strategic mistake on their part, to do so. As Harris says, Israel is losing the P.R. War – and they’d be losing it a whole lot worse if the Palestinian attacks were only against Israeli military forces. That’s a difficult thing to say, because basically I’m saying “you should suffer even more horrific casualties” and it’s not my place to tell someone else they should go to their death. The people in Gaza are effectively disarmed and haven’t got very much to resist with. The Israelis also assassinate any leaders that appear to be emerging. This is another moral topic that Harris just slides right past: is it moral for the forces of an occupying power to murder the political representatives of the area they are occupying? It makes it hard to negotiate in good faith when the other side does that.
So, Harris seems to think that “most of the critics of Israel” get stuck on the pictures of dead children, and that allows him to just breeze right on past serious issues. How frightfully dishonest.
Sam Harris: They see the occupation and they blame Israel for making Gaza a prison camp. Now I would argue this is a kind of moral illusion, born of a failure to look at the actual causes of this conflict, as well as a failure to understand the intentions of the people on either side of it. The truth is, is that there is an obvious, undeniable, and hugely consequential moral difference between Israel and her enemies. The Israelis are surrounded by people who have explicitly genocidal intentions toward them. The charter of Hamas is explicitly genocidal. It looks forward to a time, based on Koranic prophecy, when the Earth itself will cry out for Jewish blood. Where the trees and the stones will say, “O Muslim, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”
Harris knows as well as any of us, that this did not start with Hamas. Hamas was founded in 1987. Israel had already cleared the Palestinians off the land, and fought a half-dozen wars by then – that’s how the occupied territories in Gaza came to be occupied in the first place. During the 6-Day War in 1967, Israel began military occupation of considerably expanded territory. Hamas came onto the scene after Israel politically neutralized (and also assassinated a bunch of leaders) the Palestine Liberation Organization – also an organization characterized as terrorists, not insurgents. By the way, Harris also ignores the fact that Israel has been resettling civilian populations into and out of the occupied territories; that’s another breach of International Humanitarian Law.
It is deceptive of Harris to focus on the ideology of Hamas as a moral justification for making Gaza into a prison camp, when Israel began the military occupation of Gaza 20 years before Hamas was founded. Or, maybe Harris just hasn’t thought or studied this matter closely; it requires 15 minutes of wikipedia research to get the broad picture of events.
Israel, once it created itself and declared its independence, did have a problem with neighboring countries that were committed to its destruction. And, that destruction would probably have been pretty horrific had Israel lost the 6-Day War. But Israel didn’t and now it occupies a great deal of territory it seized through “right of arms” – which is to say, not right.
Unless Harris wishes to assert moral nihilism or the right of arms, there is a great big moral problem going on in the Middle East which he’s trying to soft-shoe right past.
But let’s accept, arguendo, that Hamas is committed to genocide. So, Israel has a right to defend itself against Hamas. That still does not give Israel a right to occupy Gaza, nor does it justify area-bombing noncombatants. We can scroll the clock back and assert that Egypt and Syria’s intentions were genocidal too (and they probably were to a high degree) but that justifies Israel defending itself against Egypt and Syria, as it did – it does not justify Israel occupying, and blockading Gaza. Perhaps Sam Harris needs to look at a map of the Middle East so he can realize that Gaza is not Syria, nor is it Egypt, and conflict with those nations does not justify aggression against anyone else who comes along. Since Harris is ignoring these very real issues, and preferring instead to justify Israel’s actions as self-defense, we don’t get to discover his moral reasoning that justifies “if A wrongs B, B can wrong C in return.”
Sam Harris: This is a political document. We are talking about a government that was voted into power by a majority of Palestinians.
Here, Harris makes a blunder that is fairly typical of anti-Muslims: he acknowledges that Hamas is political. And, he’s right – Hamas is a political response to a political situation. It is often, for the masses, cast in religious terms because there is a religious component to it as well, but ultimately the argument is a political one. It looks to me like it’s an argument about the political landscape of the Middle East: who has power, who has oil, who has the biggest army, who gets what land – you know, politics. Those are serious issues and people go to war, kill, and die, over them all the time. Ever since civilization arose at the juncture of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, there has been an ongoing “discussion” about the political landscape of the Middle East; this is just the latest round.
So, I’m glad to see that Harris is not trying to trivialize what is a political complaint by brushing it off as “just how Muslims are.”
However, I’ve encountered that argument – AKA “the mad mullahs” argument, most recently when Anjuli Pandavar was blogging here on the FTB network. I believe it is a fair characterization of that argument to say it goes something like this:
“Islam as a religion is devoted to the destruction of Jews/Israel; if they ever get the power, or god forbid they get nuclear weapons, they will immediately attempt genocide.” Sometimes that is served with a side-helping of “they don’t value their lives and want to die and go to heaven, so they must be stopped before we have to kill them all.” The problem with that argument is that the arab states are now much, much more powerful than they were during the 6-Day War and have also learned how to fight 4th generation warfare. If they actually were deranged “mad mullahs” set upon a course of nihilism, and unafraid to die, they’d have already done it. No, the reality is that the Arab states tried once, failed miserably, and are still bitter and resentful, but they’re not a bunch of death-wishing nihilists who want to experience Israel’s nuclear arsenal. They are capable of talking and capable of negotiating – they seem to negotiate just fine with the Chinese and Russians – so clearly they are not all that deranged. Maybe the whole situation is just what it appears to be: a horrible political problem. Which would mean that a solution, if there is one, will be political – not a bunch of moralizing by Sam Harris. But, I digress.
(6:50) Sam Harris: The discourse in the Muslim world about Jews is utterly shocking. Not only is there wide-spread holocaust denial, there is holocaust denial that then asserts “we will do it for real if given the chance.” The only thing more obnoxious than denying the holocaust is to say that it should have happened. It didn’t happen, but if we get the chance we will accomplish it. There are children’s shows in the Palestinian territories and elsewhere that teach 5-year-olds about the glories of martyrdom and about the necessity of killing Jews. And this gets to the heart of the moral difference between Israel and her enemies, and this is something I discussed in The End Of Faith – to see this moral difference you have to ask what each side would do if they had the power to do it.
Remember, Sam Harris is a guy who writes books about morality. Here, he is treating the entire Muslim world as though they all share a common agenda – which is absurd given that Harris has just conceded that we’re talking about a political problem.
I also find holocaust denial and glorification of martyrdom as problematic; pleas for genocide, as well. One cannot look at the situation and not observe that the strongest anti-Israel sentiments are coming from the populations that are most politically affected – and you see that ISIS and Al Quaeda are drawing most of their recruits from countries where political unrest has caused destabilization, and political movements have contextualized themselves in a religious context.
Harris is attempting to argue that Muslims are acting as a unit, which they rather obviously do not – right now Islam is fighting a bitter internal civil war that is cast in terms of sectarian beliefs, but that’s hardly evidence that Muslims share a common set of beliefs that Israel should be destroyed and the Jews along with it – in fact, Arab nations and Israel have engaged diplomatically, at various times – hardly an indicator of blind faith trumping political necessity.
I know it’s not news to Harris but there are evangelical Baptist sects in the US that long for the apocalypse, the return of jesus, and the slaughter of all the Jews. It’s right there in their books. Since we know that Harris knows this, he’s editing that out of his argument, deliberately – so that he can blame Muslims.
There’s a nasty conflation going on in Harris’ thinking, where he muddles up Middle Eastern politics and Muslim faith. They’re two very different things and they act at cross-purposes more often than not. That’s why, right now, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria are engaged in a nasty proxy war that is contextualized by Muslim faith for some, but is mostly about re-drawing the political landscape of the Middle East after the US’ ill-advised destabilization of the region. Harris keeps pointing at “Muslims” that believe so passionately that Israel must be destroyed – he ought to stop and explain why they are fighting eachother so much, if destroying Israel is such a great article of faith with them.
The fact is, it’s not a great article of faith with them. Sure, it is with some of them, but it’s not with others. It’s complicated like that; that’s how politics are.
But when you have a complicated situation with beliefs swirling about, and political landscapes shifting, what you absolutely cannot do is what Harris does: point at the whole mess and say that it amounts to aggression from which Israel must defend itself.
Sure, Israel needs to navigate the difficult geopolitics of the Middle East, but that is a diplomatic problem, not a moral issue. Meanwhile, the moral issue that Harris keeps avoid coming to grips with is how to morally justify “if A wrongs B, B can wrong C in return.”
Sam Harris: What would the Jews do to the Palestinians if they could to anything they wanted? Well, we already know the answer to that question, because they can do more or less anything they want. The Israeli Army could kill everyone in Gaza tomorrow. So what does that mean? Well, it means that when they drop a bomb on a beach and kill 4 Palestinian children, as happened last week, this is almost certainly an accident – they’re not targeting children. They could target as many children as they want. Every time a Palestinian child dies, Israel edges ever-closer to becoming an international pariah. So the Israelis take great pains not to kill children and other noncombatants.
It’s interesting that Harris again conflates ethnicity/religion and politics, when he frames this as “What would the Jews do to the Palestinians” not “What would the Israeli Government do to the Palestinians” – perhaps because the answer to that rhetorical question would be:
“Occupy them, wall them off, starve them, bomb their civilian infrastructure, internally displace them, and bomb and kill noncombatants”
I make that 6 crimes against humanity, right there.
I find it repellent that Harris resorts to an argument that is basically, “well, they could be worse.” Remember, this guy writes books about morals, and here he is arguing that Israel is not as bad as they appear to be, because if they wanted to appear to be worse, they could. For one thing, that’s hardly a moral argument and for another that’s a feeble defense that could be used by every war criminal, ever. In fact, it pretty much has been – European colonialist powers are fond of trying to deflect their birth-out-of-genocide by proudly pointing out that they haven’t killed quite all the natives, yet.
(7:53) Sam Harris: Now, is it possible that some Israeli soldiers go berserk under pressure and wind up shooting into crowds of rock-throwing children? Of course! You will always find some soldiers acting this way in the middle of a war. But we know that this isn’t a general intent of Israel.
There are plenty of examples of incidents of Israeli troops behaving badly, but watch how Harris tries to deflect Israeli government policy onto a minority of bad actors. It’s not individual soldiers that are individually naming military incursions things like Operation Protective Edge [wik] and mobilize ground, artillery, and air forces in a coordinated maneuver. Sorry, Sam, but that wasn’t just a couple of Israeli soldiers losing their shit Lt. Calley-style.
What’s more disturbing is Harris’ characterization of “crowds of rock-throwing children” as “a war.” No, that’s crowds of rock-throwing children, Sam. I don’t want to give anyone strategic advice in how to deal with that particular conflict but I’ll just observe that it takes a lot of thrown rocks to hurt a tank; a tank that returns fire with machine guns against rocks … well, it’s stretching things mighty thin to call those rock-throwing kids “combatants” in a “war.” But that’s what Harris appears to be saying.
Sam Harris: We know that Israelis do not want to kill noncombatants.
Actually, we know that they do. It is Israeli policy to retaliate militarily against noncombatants in Gaza for when Hamas launches an attack. That policy runs a spectrum from bulldozing homes to punish families or neighbors of Palestinian militants, to using naval artillery to blow away people playing soccer on the beach. [By the way, Israel has world-leading drone surveillance and great military surveillance optics; if Sam Harris wants to believe that an Israeli naval vessel was firing its guns blindly at a beach, he’s not convincing me – naval Gunners know what they are shooting at, and hit what they are shooting at.]
Also, note the rhetorical flourish; it’s pure Sam Harris: “we” We? Yes, we‘re being so reasonable, we agree, we know. While I’ve been writing this, I have been trying hard to distinguish what is my opinion when I state it, and never to cast it as fact. When Harris says “we know that Israelis do not want to kill noncombatants” he is being about as manipulative as you can get, with words – and I have to assume that (since he’s a smart guy) he knows what he’s doing.
(8:10) Sam Harris: Because they could kill as many as they want. And they’re not doing it.
Behold the moral reasoning of The Moral Landscape. Harris’ moral landscape is cratered with artillery and pock-marked with bullets.
The argument Harris is making here is the same as a person who shoots 100 people saying “I could have shot 1,000.” That is not moral reasoning, at all. Here is how you do the moral reasoning on that: “Oh, look, that guy killed 100 people. Let’s stop him because he might kill more.” It is absolutely irrelevant how many more people might have been killed; you look at the people who have been killed – it’s enough.
I know I keep saying this, but it bears repeating: this is a guy who writes books about morals. It would be funny, if it were even slightly funny.
Sam Harris: What do we know of the Palestinians? What would the Palestinians do to the Jews in Israel if the power imbalance were reversed?
This is one of Harris’ patented ridiculous hypotheticals; he’s attempting to set up a dilemma where there is none. If the power imbalance were reversed and the Palestinians were getting all genocidal against Jews, they might find themselves getting stomped flat like the German nazis did. Or they might find the international community standing by, wringing their hands, like they did before, in Poland, Germany, France, Russia, Rwanda, Wounded Knee, and god knows how many other times.
We don’t know, and we can’t know. And that does not justify bombing Gazan noncombatants – people under military occupation – that’d be like if the US bombed the interned Japanese in their prison camps because “if the power differential were reversed, they’d be really bad to us.”
This is supposed to be moral reasoning – “if they were powerful, they’d be really awful, therefore it’s OK and moral to bomb their women and children”? Well, yes, except for the “OK, it’s moral” part. That is how humans have behaved since recorded history. Political revenge and ethnic hatred is durable and problematic, and the fear that someday the party being genocided will rise up and slay their former oppressors is one of the popular justifications for genocide. After all, if we wipe them out, they will never wipe us out. That may be a practical justification, or a political justification, but it’s hardly a moral justification.
That’s the line of reasoning that Harris is sniffing along. Ponder it.
Sam Harris: Well, they have told us what they would do. For some reason, Israel’s critics don’t want to believe the worst about a group like Hamas, even when it declares the worst of itself.
I don’t want to believe the worst of Sam Harris, but I’m coming around to that view.
Once again, Harris is characterizing a mighty strawman version of “Israel’s critics” as though they are wrong in general, because they are not taking the point about Hamas. I don’t know a good word for this level of extreme cherry-picking: there are plenty of critics of Israel who existed before Hamas did and some of them quite probably do believe the worst about Hamas. In fact, part of the reason why the Palestinians have been so ineffective in their response to Israel is because they are riven with internal disagreements. Again, that’s politics not religion.
Harris wants to keep hammering, hammering, hammering on what horrible people Hamas are. Well, fine, let’s suppose we grant him the point that Hamas are worse than the Third Reich. So what? At best that justifies military conflict with Hamas; it still does not justify attacks against noncombatants. Harris seems to have this fixed target in his mind that, if only he can convince us how evil Hamas is, that Israel’s actions are thereby justified. That’s some of the worst moral reasoning I’ve seen.
There is an entire litany of reasons why Israel’s critics criticize Israel. It’s not a convenient single point of contention, as Harris would try to have us believe. For just one example, there are 1.5 million Palestinian refugees living in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza. Note that the refugees in Gaza are getting double jeopardy – first they were displaced from their homes in Palestine to a refugee camp in Gaza, and now they are being bombarded. There is no moral calculus that can even encompass such a situation – imagine if the nazis displaced German Jews to Auschwitz, and then bombed the camp. In that context, Hamas is an organization assembled from the camp’s inmates; and they are often shot down on sight by the guards, who wish to suppress any spokespeople arising. I’m aware that it’s tasteless to offer Nazi analogies in a discussion about the moral dimensions of Israeli militarism and crimes against humanity, but it is necessary when I am confronted with such facile, cherry-picked, weak, bad, and (dare I say) immoral arguments as the ones Harris is presenting here.
Sam Harris: We’ve already had a holocaust, and several other genocides in the 20th century. People are capable of committing genocide. When they tell us they intend to commit genocide, we should listen. There is every reason to believe that the Palestinians would kill all of the Jews in Israel if they could.
Yes, Sam, many of Israel’s critics are concerned about genocide and crimes against humanity. That is what they are complaining about – along with, yes, the individual photos of the wounded and maimed, and the destroyed buildings. Harris suddenly realizes that genocide is important but apparently his concern only runs one direction.
To be fair, there is doubtless a great deal of anger in those 1.5 million refugees living in camps. They would probably be perfectly happy to be violent – for political reasons. I differentiate that carefully as politics not religion: this is not the Palestinians saying “god gave us the title to this land, it is ours!” It’s “we used to live there until you drove us off and now you are killing and bombing and treating us like prisoners.” That’s a tremendous political load to bear, and the “blowback” is going to go on for a very long time, indeed.
Please, do not keep trying to contextualize it as a religious matter, because it’s geopolitics, pure and simple. It’s about the land. It cannot be about anything else, after all, because the entire question revolves around “who has the land?” which is only, at best, slightly a religious question. One does not need to be a Muslim or a Jew or a Native American or anyone else to not want to be driven off their land by a superior power.
That’s the moral issue, too. That, and the violence. You know, that stuff.
But let’s remind ourselves that what Harris is talking about is a purely hypothetical situation. That’s a nice way of saying “Harris is making stuff up.” He is hypothesizing that, if the Palestinians were the Israelis, they would be just as vicious and cruel. What horribly facile reasoning! How does Harris get from that to, “… therefore its OK to bomb their noncombatants”?
Many critics of Israel would say that violence is not the right solution, whether it’s coming from Hamas, or from Israel. Harris pretends not to hear them, because he wishes to focus relentlessly on demonizing the Palestinians. He’s going to convince us that, having penned the Palestinians up in a refugee camp in Gaza, they now also deserve to be occasionally bombed because, well, if they were on top of the situation, they’d be pretty nasty, too.
That, by the way, is one other argument Harris misses: he could simply adopt a position of moral nihilism. He could say “people suck and this is the kind of thing they do.” In which case, there wouldn’t be much to argue with, except that “people suck” is still not a moral argument for why some other people deserve to be killed or maimed.
(8:50) Sam Harris: Would every Palestinian support genocide? Of course not. But vast numbers of them, and Muslims throughout the world, would. Needless to say, Palestinians in general, and not just Hamas, have a history of targeting innocent noncombatant in the most shocking ways possible. They’ve blown themselves up on buses and in restaurants, they’ve massacred teen-agers, they’ve murdered Olympic athletes, they now shoot rockets indiscriminately into civilian areas, and – again – the charter of the government in Gaza explicitly tells us they want to annihilate the Jews. Not just in Israel, but everywhere.
Here I think Harris’ argument has gone off the rails and is bumping through the telephone poles along the side of the trolley-track.
Because some Palestinians have shot rockets indiscriminately into civilian areas in Israel, it is acceptable to bomb noncombatants in Gaza? I.e.: “if A wrongs B, B can wrong C in return.”
Harris manages to say this, right after discussing how unfortunate it was that Israel had to blow up some Gazan kids playing on a beach – indiscriminately – and he completely ignores the terrifying symmetry of the situation. If it’s wrong for the Palestinians to massacre teen-agers, by what moral calculus does Harris conclude that the Gazans deserve the same treatment? It’s not even as though the individual Palestinians who fired the rockets at Israel are being killed – it’s noncombatants. Noncombatants just like the noncombatants in buses and restaurants.
Here is some simple moral calculus, which Harris does not seem capable of: attacking noncombatants is wrong, regardless of who is doing it, or why, because attacking noncombatants always means attacking someone who didn’t attack you. That’s what “noncombatant” means. That’s why International Humanitarian Law says that conflict is a matter between combatants, leave the noncombatants out. It’s simple. But Harris keeps hammering over and over again on this point, as if by asserting over and over again how simply awful Muslims and Palestinians are, they deserve to be killed.
(9:27) Sam Harris: The truth is that everything you need to know about the moral imbalance between Israel and her enemies can be understood on the topic of human shields. Who uses human shields? Well, Hamas certainly does. They shoot their rockets from residential neighborhoods, from beside schools, and hospitals, and mosques. Muslims in other recent conflicts in Iraq and elsewhere have used human shields, they have laid their rifles on the shoulders of their own children and shot from behind their bodies. Consider the moral difference between using human shields and being deterred by them. That is the difference we are talking about. The Israelis and other western powers are deterred, however imperfectly, by the Muslim use of human shields in these conflicts. As we should be.
Yes, he really said that. This entire word-by-word decompilation is so that Harris cannot say “you are taking me of context” because you’ve had to sit through the whole thing, to get to this point.
Harris argues that, because Muslims – an entire religion – used human shields in a political conflict in Iraq ‘and elsewhere’ that, there’s some moral imbalance and the entire religion is the lesser for it? Sounds to me like one could make a good argument that the Iraqi Fedayeen Saddam were committing war crimes when they used human shields but – and I sound like a broken record – even if they did, how in the fuck does that excuse Israel attacking noncombatants in Gaza? I’m going to remind you one more time, this is the author of a book on morality, who is saying that. He’s not coming straight out and saying “… this justifies whatever Israel does in Gaza” because he’s clearly got a few shreds of decency he’s trying to hide behind, but that is completely ridiculous.
For one thing, it is not the religion of Islam that makes people do those bad things. What makes people do those bad things is political disempowerment and military weakness. The Israelis and ‘western powers’ are deterred by human shields because they have overwhelming military power and they can be deterred. People who have F-35s and B-52s and long-range artillery don’t think to use human shields because they already have established battlefield dominance so great that they can just blow up their targets with impunity. [There are some interesting moral questions there, as well, that Harris would do well to ponder]
It is a war crime to put your rifle on the shoulder of your own child, and to use them as a bipod; you maybe even deserve to die for doing that. But the whole point of the discussion is that the child does not deserve to die because they are a noncombatant. So, here Sam Harris is complaining that the Muslims (not just the Palestinians but Muslims worldwide) are so morally bankrupt that, uh, noncombatants in Gaza deserve to die?
“If A wrongs B, B can wrong C in return.” If a Fedayeen Saddam soldier used a noncombatant as a human shield, it does not make it OK to bomb other noncombatants in Gaza.
Their religious beliefs are completely irrelevant, too – for one thing, because Harris attempts to demonize all Muslims worldwide for the crime of using human shields. That’s a stereotype that is as ridiculous as saying “the US military likes to bomb hospitals.” Because, it sure does seem to happen a lot. But, because the US military has bombed hospitals, therefore 9/11 is justified. Wait, what? That’s the kind of thing Osama Bin Laden would say! It’s terrorism! It’s also something Osama Bin Laden did say. I am placing Sam Harris’ moral reasoning in a very sketchy quadrant, indeed.
I have actually read Bin Laden’s fatwas, and they are worth the exercise.  There is a lot of flowery religion stuff but the bulk of Bin Laden’s complaint is political. It is about power-structures and massacres and occupation: political events. Bin Laden makes an extremely immoral argument, namely that, because the Americans do these things, they are all valid targets; they are all our enemies. So: Americans put troops in the holy places (he is referring to Saudi Arabia), therefore it’s OK to kill Americans anywhere, Saudi Arabia or not. He erases the connection between oppressor and oppression – All Americans are bad. It’s the same reasoning Sam Harris uses against all Muslims: “If A wrongs B, B can wrong C in return.”
Sam Harris: It is morally abhorrent to kill noncombatants if you can avoid it. it’s certainly abhorrent to shoot through the bodies of children, to get at your adversary. But take a moment to reflect on how contemptible this behavior is: and understand how cynical it is, the Muslims are acting on the assumption – the knowledge, in fact – that the infidels with whom they fight, the very people whom their religion does nothing but vilify, will be deterred by their use of Muslim human shields.
I’m reminded of the great scene in The Battle of Algiers in which the interviewer asks the Algerian insurgent whether his methods, putting bombs in baby carriages, is immoral – and he replies “if you give us a few of your jet fighters, we will give you some of our baby carriages.” What Harris is ignoring is that human shields are not a viable tactic, anyway – they are an admission of defeat. If you’re thinking of using human shields to influence the outcome of a battle, it’s a battle you’ve already lost. Ask the Fedayeen Saddam. The history of warfare is actually not replete with incidents where human shields were used – plenty of hostages – but that’s a different strategy entirely.
Again, Harris confuses politics with religion and generalizes all the world’s Muslims as being cheaters at warfare. [See note] It’s getting a bit repetitive but that seems to be most of what Harris is offering. It’s as wrong as saying “all American soldiers are war criminals” when only 5% of them are. So what? Even if 5% of the US military were war criminals, that doesn’t mean you can shoot American prisoners because of what the 5% did. You might be justified in shooting the 5% – Nuremberg-style. Cecile Fabre points this out in great detail in her book on defensive warfare, by walking us through the a scenario in which we are putting a bomb in a military mess hall: are we justified? What if they were the aggressors? But what if some of the soldiers in the mess hall are new recruits, who were draftees, and who simply haven’t gotten a chance to run away, yet? It’s the kind of hypothetical scenario Sam Harris likes, when he’s pretending to think about a problem.
(10:41) Sam Harris: They consider the Jews to be the spawn of apes and pigs, and yet they rely on the fact that they don’t want to kill Muslim noncombatants. Now imagine reversing the roles here. Imagine how fatuous, indeed how comical it would be, for the Israelis to attempt to use human shields to deter the Palestinians.
Harris appears to believe that the Muslims he’s listening to  take literally the idea that Jews are the spawn of apes and pigs. That’s getting pretty far afield. But, notice Harris is back with the rhetorical flourishes: it’s “fatuous” and “comical” to imagine the Palestinians being deterred by human shields. Again, Harris is fluidly switching between “Muslims” and “Palestinians” as though they were a completely overlapping set, instead of the complex multi-layered Venn Diagram we’d need to represent the intersections of all the political alignments and religious beliefs that are present on the scene.
A shorter way of saying that is that Harris is trading in simple, ugly, stereotypes. Like you-know-who does.
Sam Harris: Some claim that they have already done this. There are reports that Israeli soldiers have occasionally put Palestinian civilians in front of them as they advanced into dangerous areas. That’s not the use of human shields we’re talking about.
That’s a war crime. Regardless of who does it.
Remember, this is the author of a book on morals, who is saying this. Also, notice how he inserts ‘dangerous’ to specify the areas. Does that it’s “dangerous” change anything? Not to the ICRC. Why does Harris sneak that word in there, unless it is to minimize the war crime of the Israelis – after all, the area was dangerous so… all the more reason to herd Palestinian civilians into the danger? What the actual fuck.
(11:12) Sam Harris: It’s egregious behavior, no doubt it constitutes a war crime. But imagine the Israelis holding up their own women and children as human shields – that would be ridiculous. The Palestinians are trying to kill everyone. Killing women and children is part of the plan. Reversing the roles here produces a grotesque Monty Python skit. If you’re gonna talk about the conflict in the Middle East, you have to acknowledge this difference.
It’s a Sam Harris ridiculous hypothetical! [By the way, have you noticed that Sam Harris moral hypotheticals tend to sound like slasher porn?] and he slips in the assertion that “The Palestinians are trying to kill everyone” and “Killing women and children is part of the plan.” I’m not even sure where to start with that except, well, if killing everyone is the Palestinian’s plan, having unarmed protesters gunned down by snipers is a hell of a bad plan.
But, again, Harris lumps all the Palestinians into this hated and dangerous group that plans evil and killing and… still fails to make any sort of connection to why it is OK to gun down noncombatants. If there were a dangerous group of armed Palestinians bent on killing, then we’re talking about a conflict situation and then there are other questions about how the conflict is managed – but it still does not justify that “If A wrongs B, B can wrong C in return.”
By now I’ve gotten the impression that Sam Harris thinks Muslims and Palestinians (he can’t tell them apart) are hateful evil people, that deserve any kind of abuse that gets dished out their way. That is the same kind of broad, inaccurate, ethnic/religious stereotyping that causes anti-semitism, Sam.
Sam Harris: I don’t think that there is any ethical disparity that is to be found anywhere that is more shocking or consequential than this. And the truth is that this isn’t even the worst that jihadists do. Hamas is practically a moderate organization compared to other jihadist groups. There are Muslims who have blown themselves up in crowds of children – Muslim children – just to get at the American soldiers who were handing out candy to them.
American soldiers! Handing out candy! And think of the children! While there’s lots of broad emotional appeal in Harris’ rhetoric, could we be talking about American occupation soldiers? You know, a valid military target if you’re a citizen of a country that has been invaded by the US, like, say, Iraq? Or Afghanistan?
Unlike Harris, I am willing to say unequivocally that suicide bombing, if it involves noncombatants, is a war crime and the targeting of noncombatants by any side, whatever, should be stopped. Harris continues this elaborate dance, demonizing Muslims as a collective, presumably because he feels that if a Muslim blows up a crowd of people in Kandahar, it justifies Israeli troops shooting unarmed protesters in Gaza.
Harming. Noncombatants. Is. A. War. Crime.
It is immoral to try to downplay the decisions and the agency of one side, by demonizing an entire family of religions and lumping together over a dozen nations and who knows how many ethnicities under a single label “Muslim.” Harris is trying to build a case, it seems, that Muslims are just so bad that they’ve pretty much got it coming, whatever it is. Remember, Harris wrote a book on morals.
Sam Harris: They have committed suicide bombings, only to send another bomber to the hospital to await the casualties, where they then blow up all the injured, along with the doctors and the nurses trying to save their lives.
That’s definitely a war crime, of course. It’s a war crime like having a second drone loiter after the first one fires a hellfire missile and flies off, so they can blow away anyone who shows up to see who got killed. It’s a war crime like bombing a medcins sans frontieres hospital and then saying “oops.”
I’m starting to get a different impression from all of this than I suspect Harris is trying to convey. I know Harris is trying to convince me that Muslims are so bad that I guess they deserve any horrible fate, whatever. But what I am actually starting to suspect is that Harris has an irrational and unfounded emotional revulsion toward Muslims. I’m also starting to suspect that Harris doesn’t know very much about morality and how it works. I say it’s an “irrational and unfounded emotional revulsion toward Muslims” because Harris can’t even keep straight if he’s talking about Hamas, Palestinians, worldwide Muslims, Sunni or Shia Islam, or what. He’s just lumped them all into a great big bucket labelled “Muslim” and he’s arguing that they’re all horrible people. I’m getting an idea of my own who’s horrible but I’m not just going to lump Sam Harris in with some group and say “Atheists are such horrible people; they have people like Sam Harris.”
That suicide bomber that is trying to blow up the soldier? That’s a political act. In fact, what Harris consistently fails to confront is that a lot of the Muslim-on-Muslim carnage is also political. In parts of the Middle East, politics and religion are fused because being able to say “allah wills it” is a useful shorthand for the rubes, but what’s going on is regional geopolitics and a struggle for oil wealth, with a bit of CIA and US Special Forces provocation thrown in. All that stuff about dividing up the Ottoman Empire into little competing countries, and putting dictators in charge of them? That was political. That was British imperial politics, German imperial politics, French imperial politics, and now it’s American imperial politics. Go read Bin Laden’s fatwas – they are about the political situation and cultural dominance of Europe over the Middle East. I don’t think Sam Harris is stupid and doesn’t know any of this stuff; that leaves a) he’s an incredibly shallow thinker or b) he’s incredibly dishonest.
Sam Harris: Every day that you read about and Israeli rocket gone astray, or Israeli soldiers beating up an innocent teen-ager, you could have read about ISIS in Iraq, crucifying people on the side of the road: Christians and Muslims. Where is the outrage in the Muslim world and on the left over these crimes? Where are the demonstrations, 10,000, 100,000 deep in the capitals of Europe against ISIS? If Israel kills a dozen Palestinians by accident, the entire Muslim world is enflamed. God forbid you burn a Koran, or write a novel vaguely critical of the faith. And yet, Muslims can destroy their own societies, and seek to destroy The West, and you don’t hear a peep.
This strategy appears to be “throw a lot of shit at the wall, and see what sticks.” It’s sort of like a Gish Gallop except it involves throwing feces. When an Israeli or Palestinian or Russian or Lichtensteinian rocket goes astray and hits some noncombatants, that’s a war crime. People who actually think about this stuff understand that, but Sam Harris appears to have missed the point entirely. Then, he makes this extremely dubious stretch and asks “where is the outrage over ISIS?” What a dipshit: the outrage over ISIS was expressed by Arab League-funded attacks, US, French and British air strikes, and US artillery and special forces, along with a bizzare, motley mix of factions including several competing factions of Muslims – all of whom showed up and fought a war of extermination against ISIS. “You don’t hear a peep”? No, you hear the roar of the great guns and the big jets. It’s deafening.
Meanwhile, Harris’ rhetorical flourishes are back, “If Israel kills a dozen Palestinians by accident.” He has to throw “accident” in there, but why? Doubtless there are plenty of people criticizing Israel when it accidentally kills a dozen Palestinians – but I and doubtless others are criticizing Israel when its field command structure lays in a coordinated artillery barrage on a noncombatant target, or when the navy fires at people on a beach, nowhere near where any conflict is taking place. What I and others are criticizing Israel for is turning Gaza into a free-fire zone like the US did in Vietnam. Which, incidentally, was a war crime. The moral calculus of these situations seems remarkably easy, to me: you simply observe the guidance of International Humanitarian Law and point and say “war criminal” at anyone who is violating it. “Crimes against humanity.” That’s how it works. And, if it turns out to be a complicated gray area: that’s what the court in The Hague is there to adjudicate.
As far as the “Muslims destroy their own societies” – that’s politics. A lot of imperialism depended on “divide and conquer” and setting up local thugs and strongmen to do their dirty work for them. Harris should know this (but is pretending not to) but the history of Iran and Iraq and Syria is synopsized thus: British and French carve up Ottoman Empire into 3 states and place local strong-men at the head of each. Eventually there are some attempts at democratizing Syria and Iran, both of which are suppressed by the US CIA, and new strong-men are put in charge. There is some resentment. Iran rebels against the US puppet and is subjected to a regime of isolation and nuclear blackmail. Iraq is invaded and disintegrates. Syria is invaded and is in the process of maybe disintegrating. That’s all politics though some of the players are religious. The conflict is political. If Harris were being honest he might say, “The Iraqis are destroying their own cities…” except then you’d have to have a conversation about how the Middle East political landscape evolved, and it wouldn’t be possible to easily blame the Iraqis for what happened to them. Harris’ dishonesty is profound; this is all “Middle East 101” stuff.
Note I am not blaming European powers for everything that has gone wrong in the Middle East. That was fashionable, for a time, but it’s not my view. I do think that anyone who tries to cast the Middle East’s politics as emerging solely from religion is a) a complete ignoramus, b) a bigot, or c) a dishonest jerk. Possibly d) all of the above.
(12:48) Sam Harris: So it seems to me that you really have to side with Israel, here. You have one side that, if it really could accomplish its aims, would simply live peacefully with its neighbors – and you have another side which is seeking to implement a 7th century theocracy in the Holy Land. There’s no peace to be found between these incompatible ideas.
I don’t have to side with Israel, no, not at all.
Actually, I side with humans; individually and collectively. That’s what you’re doing when you say “let’s try to follow International Humanitarian Law” – you are saying, in effect, “I don’t know what right is, but I know what wrong is so please don’t do that.” As an inevitable consequence of that, it is impossible to employ certain types of force and coercion – which is awkward indeed for anyone in the situation who has adopted those tools rather than negotiation. It seems to me that the moral choice is negotiation, always, in preference to violence and threat.
Please review the paragraph above, and note that what I suggest is an entirely political process; religion may enter into it as a data-point, but it’s endlessly surprising to me that an atheist spokesperson like Sam Harris would deliberately avoid any of the political realities of the region. Harris wants to pretend that the region’s problems are purely a matter of Islam; he knows better.
Remember how we got to here: Sam Harris, the author of books on morals, has claimed that the Palestinians are such bad people because, Islam and Muslim and all kinds of bad things, so he guesses he really has to side with Israel because those Muslim Palestinians apparently deserve the bad things Israel has to do to them.
Sam Harris: It doesn’t mean you can’t condemn specific actions on the part of the Israelis. And, of course, acknowledging the moral disparity between Israel and her enemies doesn’t give us any solution to the problem of Israel’s existence in the Middle East. Again, granted, there are some percentage of Jews who are animated by their own religious hysteria and their own prophecies. Some are awaiting the messiah on contested land; yes these people are willing to sacrifice the blood of their own children for the glory of god, but for the most part they are not representative of the current state of Judaism or of the actions of the Israeli Government.
That’s a spectacular bit of motivated reasoning: the Muslim extremists are representative of all of Islam, but the Jewish extremists are not representative of the current state of Judaism.
Let me try to re-frame that somewhat for Harris. Israel is under political control of ultra-nationalists who have pursued capitalization on military advantage instead of negotiating in good faith. Perhaps their enemies are not negotiating in good faith, either, but critics of Israel are focusing on the state’s political actions and are more or less ignoring the religious aspects wherever possible, except where they rear their head. I resent Sam Harris’ facile portrayal of critics of Israel as being narrowly focused on issues that I am not; being a “critic of Israel” in my own small way (I am a critic of any nation that is systematically engaging in crimes against humanity) Harris keeps trying to make this about religion, when it’s really about politics 98%, religion about 2%. Politics is a nasty brew of control of power, maintenance of dynasty, transfer or wealth, control of territory, control of the people, etc – somewhere in there maybe there are people who are being cynically manipulated by religious dogma, but like any rationalist I am committed to detecting and deconstructing manipulation when it is attempted against me, and I’m looking at a great big festering load of it, right now.
That last bit is bizarre: how can the actions of the Israeli Government not represent the actions of the Israeli Government? Surely Harris is not trying to imply that large-scale military operations are somehow not what the government does; military operations is what governments are, in fact. When the government of Israel orders its troops into punitive missions and punitive air strikes/artillery fire against noncombatants, they are representing the current state of the Israeli Government quite clearly. Unlike Sam Harris, who blames Islam for a great many of the Palestinians’ crimes, I do not blame Judaism for the crimes of the Israeli Government. I blame their politics. I blame the Palestinians’ politics for their crimes, and the Iraqi’s politics for theirs, and ISIS’ politics for theirs, etc. It’s surprising and disappointing to see an atheist spokesperson being so naive about politics that they throw everything into the bucket of “religion” – religion has a lot of things it’s to blame for, but let’s preserve some rational separation between church and state, in our own minds at least.
Sam Harris: And it is how Israel deals with these people, their own religious lunatics, that will determine whether they can truly hold the moral high ground.
Uh, Sam, Israel abandoned the moral high ground when it took to assassinating opposition leaders, and launching punitive strikes on noncombatants. Israel abandoned the moral high ground when it displaced hundreds of thousands of people in order to grab their land. Israel abandoned the moral high ground when it covertly developed weapons of mass destruction, which are maintained as weapons of privilege. But, most importantly, Israel abandoned the moral high ground when it refused to engage in good faith diplomacy, preferring to tread water while displacing more Palestinians off the land and building settlements.
As far as moral high ground – is not the superior power more beholden to act justly than the inferior one? Is it not wrong for a superior military force to enforce its will, to use that superior force to retaliate? I would expect, were an author of books about morality, to be able to make a cogent moral argument for why the moral high ground is always diplomacy, not a pointed stick. I would expect the superior force to suffer more casualties than the inferior force, since they were showing restraint; that is not what is happening in every encounter between the Israeli military and the civilians in Palestine. Yet Harris apologizes and uses weasel-language over and over again, to imply that the people who got the sharp end of the stick somehow must have deserved it, because: Islam! Yeah, that’s it.
Sam Harris: And Israel can do a lot more than it has to dis-empower them. It can cease to subsidize the delusions of the ultra-orthodox. And it can stop building settlements on contested land. The incompatible religious attachments to this land has made it impossible for Muslims and Jews to negotiate like rational human beings.
Whoops, Harris slipped again: negotiating like rational human beings is a political process, but suddenly he is referring to Muslims and Jews. It’s as if he’s got his thumb on the scale again, to frame it so as to make it harder for them to negotiate. Because, surely, to negotiate a political settlement in the Middle East is going to involve Egypt, Syria, Russia, the US, Gaza, Jordan, etc – nations, with national agendas, not religious agendas. Harris keeps trying to get us to watch the bug-a-boo “religion” that he’s trying to distract us with; he’s not being honest.
Sam Harris: And it has made it impossible for them to live in peace. But the onus is still more on the side of the Muslims, here.
I don’t find “because they are icky Muslims” to be a good argument.
Sam Harris: Even on their worst day, the Israelis act with greater care, and compassion and self-criticism than Muslim combatants have anywhere, ever.
Harris is going into his closing argument, now. And it’s that: Israelis are better.
If the Israelis are acting with such great care and compassion, why are the casualty rates and mix so disproportionate? When you see casualty-rates like 2,000 Palestinians were killed and 10,000 wounded to 66 Israeli soldiers and 5 Israeli civilians – it sure looks like the Palestinians are attacking the Israeli military and the Israeli military is attacking the Palestinian civilians. If the Israeli naval gunners who fired a round at 4 kids playing on the beach showed care, it was in making sure their shot was accurate. When the Israeli snipers shoot unarmed protesters with live rounds, below the knee, they are showing care because it’s a P.R. Disaster, as Harris himself says.
Sam Harris: Again, you have to ask yourself “what do these groups want? What will they accomplish if they could accomplish anything? What could the Israelis do if they could do what they want?”
They would do what they’re doing.
Harris’ impeccable logic leads to a horrible hole: since Israel has all the power, in this situation, including being the sole regional nuclear clubmember, Israel can do pretty much what they want. And one of the things they are not doing is diplomacy. I guess they don’t want diplomacy, Sam?
The fact is that Israel has tried diplomacy, and failed. Because the diplomacy they have tried would entail making actual concessions, like opening up Gaza, ceasing settlements, things like that. The PLO and Israel almost had an agreement on that, but neither side was happy with it, so it fell apart. But if you want to talk about moral high ground, as Harris does, is it not the more powerful party’s responsibility to treat fairly with its lesser partner? The moral high ground is not found by saying “it’s my way or the highway.”
Sam Harris: They would live in peace with their neighbors if they had neighbors who would live in peace with them.
Yes, it was terribly aggressive of those Palestinians to encourage a mass migration from Europe. I bet they regret it, now.
When you look at the casualty rates in the Gaza conflict, it is clear that resistance is being met with overwhelming force. That is nobody’s definition of “living in peace” – what Harris is saying, here, is that the Palestinian refugees, having been driven off their land and into refugee camps, really need to take a chill pill and be better neighbors.
Sam Harris: They would simply continue to build out their high-tech sector and thrive. What do groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda and even Hamas want? They want to impose their religious views on the rest of humanity. They want to stifle every freedom that decent and educated and secular people care about. This is not a trivial difference. Yet, judging from the level of condemnation that Israel now receives, you would think the difference ran the other way. This kind of confusion puts us all in danger. This is the great story of our time. For the rest of our lives and the lives of our children, we are going to be confronted by people who don’t want to live peacefully in a secular, pluralistic world, because they are desperate to get to paradise and they are willing to destroy the very possibility of human happiness along the way.
The truth is: we are all living in Israel. It’s just that some of us haven’t realized it yet.
I universally condemn any government that is engaging in crimes against humanity: forced relocation, dispossession, military occupation, retaliation against noncombatants, and area bombardment of noncombatants. That includes the US, Great Britain – all the colonial powers, built on blood and racism. So, to the extent that I grew up in a country where my property was cleared by military force of its original inhabitants, yes, I am living in Israel.
Unlike Sam Harris I’m not interested in minimizing it.
Notes: (in no particular order)
Usually, I avoid talking about Israel (except regarding its fascinating history of nuclear proliferation) because it’s a no-win situation like debating gun control with an American: all of the possible options are shielded off and declared to be “impractical” – therefore the assumption is that the status quo will be maintained. That’s also a blatantly dishonest tactic, when you encounter it, because it simply ratifies the established power dynamic: all Israel has to do is keep its feet firmly planted, and everyone must orbit around them. Negotiation is certainly simpler because you can say endlessly “the other guy is not negotiating in good faith” while allowing those negotiations to fail because their failure is to your advantage.
I’ve had that conversation more times than I like and it certainly can get heated, because it is an important issue, and it’s very badly broken, and people are getting hurt.
Like many atheists, I was once a Sam Harris fan. He’s smooth, that’s for sure. As I mentioned up-posting, I had this college professor (philosophy) who used to use rhetorical tricks like well-poisoning to manipulate his students’ perception of philosophical problems. He’d say things like, “clearly nobody in their right mind would believe…” thereby setting up a situation where, if someone did believe that proposition, they were less likely to argue it, and the other people in the room were already conditioned against it. It’s a dirty trick; if one’s position is true then it’s unnecessary – someone who’s using debater/politician’s tricks in casual conversation is suspicious. Attuned to this technique, I was surprised and horrified when I saw Sam Harris using it; I believe it was in some debate or other, and I thought, “well, that’s debating.” But it seemed that every time I listened to or read Harris, I kept seeing dishonest rhetorical tricks. It’s my opinion, at this point, that dishonest rhetorical tricks is all that Sam Harris has got – he’s like the high school debate team captain who’s all grown up now, but still relies too much on the tricks he learned in competition, because he never learned anything else. That’s all well and good for smacking around the religious believers, since they’re an easy target, but it fails miserably when you’re trying to honestly grapple with an important topic. The issue of Israel is an important topic – and Harris treats it lightly, like it’s simply another debate to score some points in. I don’t know why Harris feels he needed to weigh in on the issue in this particular way, but it’s clear – which is why I dissected him – that his approach to it is dishonest at its core. Perhaps Harris has simply come to value being right and sounding smart more than anything else in the world.
One of Harris’ favorite rhetorical tactics is to complain that people took his comments out of context – which is why I went to some effort here to keep everything in context. To me, it looks worse in context; one could pull little bits of Harris’ discussion, and they wouldn’t seem too horrible. In order to clearly see how bad Harris’ argument is, you need to spread it out on an autopsy table under bright lights.
One strategy is to just say “it’s going to have to sort itself out” and step back and turn away. Like the European powers and the US did in Rwanda, and France, Poland, Germany and Austria. “It’s going to have to sort itself out” amounts to ceding the field to the most powerful party. As I argued up-page, if I were to claim there is a moral high ground, it would be when the stronger party acknowledges their superior strength and gives the weaker party a better deal, then enforces it fairly. I’m afraid that, regarding Israel, the “it’s going to have to sort itself out” is the secret policy of all the world powers that matter, so that’s what’s going to happen.
However, there’s “sorting itself out” and “sorting itself out” – remember that France once thought that the North/South Vietnam divide would “sort itself out” if they just put the right puppets in charge over here or there and gave it some time. France deserved the humiliating defeat it earned itself at Dien Bien Phu, but all of the other powers in the world took the wrong lesson; they learned “France is no longer a great military power” not “You cannot defeat an insurgency in anyplace larger than Rhode Island, and – even then – maybe not.” The Vietcong, if I may say, perfected the art of insurgency and the military world changed profoundly when they did; it was possibly a more important military innovation than nuclear weapons, because insurgency is the key to humbling even the most powerful state. Israel is going to remain one step away from disaster for a very long time – possibly until disaster happens. What would that look like? Palestine produces its own Ho Chi Minh, who is able to secure sponsorship from another power that wants to give the US its third humiliating hamstring-cut (Vietnam, Afghanistan, …) The US is in the process of confronting the inevitability of agenda-defeat in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – there is nasty writing on the wall, and honestly none of us want to read what it says. I believe that a well-run and supported insurgency could cripple Israel back to being a 3rd world country very quickly; faster than most of us think. I don’t want to see that happen, but mostly because I still hope for peace, which is probably naive optimism.
Now that there is an Israel in the Middle East, it’s all broken and nothing will fix it for a long time. But, remember, it’s the land where empire after empire has risen and fallen; this may be a short-term blip.
For one thing, I absolutely do not think ethno-states are a good idea. Especially if they include a claim to territory. When I find myself having this conversation with an Israel supporter, I usually let them rattle along for a while and ask them, “so if the Israelis had a right to come re-claim their ancestral ethno-state, do you also support the Native Americans’ reclaiming the whole continental United States, except for – say – New York City, which would become an overcrowded refugee camp under military occupation, like Gaza?” I actually do think that the United States is a bad idea for the world, and we’d be much better off if we gave Texas back to the Mexicans, let California become independent, and gave everything between California and the Adirondack Mountains back to the native tribes, along with an apology. Sure, the east coast would be an overcrowded hell-hole but we’re comfortable supporting what Israel is doing in Gaza, so apparently we think that’s OK.
My “big picture” perspective on the whole thing is this: Europeans have a great big problem called anti-semitism. The Europeans did a really shitty job of controlling their horrible anti-semitism and, after pogroms and inquisitions and the holocaust, it got severely out of control. The US, inheriting European racism, imperialism, and anti-semitism, also had its own problem with anti-semitism. So, the Europeans and Americans cooked up a great idea, which was: export that problem! The world never had to confront its stupid anti-semitism head on, it exported it, and now it’s pretty happy to sit back and watch the whole thing devolve into a great humongous mess. It’s basically the same strategy that white supremacist American racists thought up when they tried to talk the Africans that they had ‘imported’ as slaves, into going back to Africa. But the bottom line is that there are still lots of fucking anti-semitic douchebags all over Europe, disgustingly happy because they managed to cook up an optimal variation of the “final solution” and they could continue to cling to their horrible douchebag delusions indefinitely. You noticed that I kept saying “If A wrongs B, B does not get to wrong C” – well, if I were planetary overlord here’s how Post WWII reconstruction would have gone: “OK, you European anti-semitic douchebags – we’re going to give Austria to the Jews. And we’re going to arm them.” Or maybe Poland or a chunk of Russia, or perhaps the French riviera. And, if I were planetary overlord, I’d really jack up the American South. Those douchebags need a hard lesson; Sherman’s march was apparently too subtle for them.
Enough grumbling; I’ve been writing for 12 hours straight and I’m getting weak from brain-fatigue. I may take a couple days off posting after this while you all chew on me and Sam Harris in the comment section.
Here it is:
if Harris takes it down, I’ll host a copy on my website.
“[There are some interesting moral questions there, as well, that Harris would do well to ponder]” such as: if I have battlefield dominance, does that not also mean that I control the battle’s time and location to be at my choosing? I know that I am going to win – the outcome is never in doubt, it’s merely a question of whether I will suffer more casualties – so along with battlefield dominance comes the prerogative of walking away and choosing to fight another day. If you accept any of that reasoning, then it stands that the force with battlefield dominance should simply walk away if presented with human shields, perhaps warning the enemy, “you know, we’re going to come for you anyway, don’t be stupid, you’re just going to get the kid killed and you’re committing a war crime; we’ll resume this discussion at a time and manner of our choosing.” By the way, that strategic technique was perfected by Genghis Khan – a master of the “it works” school of warfare.
“…generalizes all the world’s Muslims as being cheaters at warfare.” – this is a topic that I have been curious about for a long time. If it’s cheating to hide with impunity on a battlefield by hiding behind a human shield, why is it noble military glory to drop bombs on a foe from 20,000 feet? Is the question ‘raining death on the enemy with impunity’? Because, if it is, the matters are equal except for the involvement of a noncombatant in the case of the human shield. We keep circling back to the role of noncombatants in retaliatory warfare, a point which Harris steadfastly manages to completely misunderstand: If a Muslim in Iraq cheats on the battlefield, how does that justify someone killing noncombatants in Gaza 1000km and a moral universe away?
“No, you hear the roar of the great guns and the big jets. It’s deafening.” – When France launched air strikes against Raqqa, a city full of noncombatants, in retaliation for the attacks in Paris – that was a crime against humanity. It was military retaliation against people who were almost certainly unaware, let alone involved in, the attacks in Paris. It was a crime against humanity, and there are no excuses for it. Would Sam Harris say, “well those Frenchies really had it coming for what they did as collaborators in WWII?” No, he would not, because he’s dimly aware that those were different people and “If A wrongs B, B can wrong C in return” is not a moral proposition.