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Wow Michael, this is one of those posts that makes me want to print, enlarge, and turn it into a poster. Or at least print it out and pass around (credit given, of course). I believe the best way to sum it up is 'intellectual common sense'.

Too often, too many folks in Western Society are afraid to pass firm judgements. The causes can range from political apologetics and expediency, misplaced Judeo-Christian doctrine (Judge not lest ye be judged), to that mind-gagging concept of Moral Relevancy.

In a way, it's all the same.
I understand that diplomats have to politely negotiate in the interest of peace. Sometimes, a little give and take can be good for a nations economy and its soul. But things like Human Rights should not be a dismissable negotiating chip. China comes to mind, but that's a whole 'nother issue.

Moral relevancy is a mental bludgeon that leaves us with no morality at all.

I personally like the the second half of Matthew 7:1 "For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged". It's a good way to negotiate personal relationships, and a good way to look at Ossama Bin-Laden. I have to be careful in criticizing folks, because when I look within myself, too often I can see moments in my life where I am guilty of the same behavior and motives. I may still have to take action and pass judgement, but this gives me a context.
Who hasn't felt the 'urge to kill'? Most of us don't do it. There are a lot of things I want the Powers That Be to do, but it has never seriously crossed my mind to commit mass murder to accomplish my goals. Also, there are plenty of Muslims that are sympathetic to Bin-Laden's cause, but were horrified by his methods. I can't help but think that Bin-Laden, Like Stalin, Hitler, et. al. have some answering to do, because sometime life just screams out for Divine Justice. What the exact nature of that Judgement is, I'll leave up to Greater Power(s) than me. In the meantime, I've got my hands full pulling the planks out of my own eye, so to speak :-)

What is moral relevancy?

I see bin Laden as a psychopath, one more willing to use violence, but not too far removed from the frauds and scammers of Wall Street and the big banks who toppled the global economy and caused untold anguish among millions. There is a sickness and evil in some that results in a soul completely overrun by lust for power and money. bin Laden already had the money, it didn't mean anything to him, his ego required more. I'm sure he fancied himself the hero of the Middle East. Personally I think their ultimate destiny will be that, one way or another, they will be made to face this and it will not be pleasant.

"What is moral relevancy?"

Sorry Paul, 'moral equivalency' would have been a better term, although I have heard the concept described both ways. It's actually a valid philosophical idea, but it often seems to get twisted and abused by people when they want to argue for a passive stance in making moral judgements, or when taking aggressive action in various conflicts.

Try this:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_equivalence

"He didn't pray for peace and understanding; he prayed for death and destruction."

That's a key point, and you said it nicely. How long can a person live as a mass-murderer while still claiming that his goal is to create a world that's closer to God?

"Does this mean he is beyond redemption? No, I don't think so."

Again, I agree.

"The world is facing a conflict between fundamentally different mindsets. It is a conflict that only one side can win."

Up to this point I felt as if you were speaking for me. But I have to say, it seems to me that putting the emphasis 0n "only one side can win" is a recipe for staying eternally stuck.

Is this moral equivalence? I don't know--I'm not much for philosophical terms and labels. But I think that when we stress the us-vs-them perspective, we downplay our responsibility to examine our own behaviors and to look at the darkness within our own hearts.

Bin Laden was a very bad guy. But for better or worse, we too, as Americans, have had a hand in creating this world, and our record is far from spotless.

To Michael P.: Hear, hear!

Michael,

As Bruce said, "Up to this point I felt as if you were speaking for me." Brilliantly, beautifully, cogently written.

But then it's as if the "right of center module" kicks in--not so much undermining the excellent material that had come before it but rather preventing it from reaching its logical conclusion. Please permit to rebut.

The world is facing a conflict between fundamentally different mindsets.

The world contains a vast variety of mindsets, conflicting in various degrees. There is no doubt, however that OBL's and his followers' mindset is incompatible with most other mindsets in the world. Yet, we can't kid ourselves into thinking, "If only we could eliminate these guys, then everything would be OK." That's never true. (You did not say this explicitly, but it is a fallacy of thought that is by no means unusual. "War to end all wars," etc.)

It is a conflict that only one side can win. We close our eyes to this hard fact at our own peril.

Another option is both sides lose. In fact, that's what's happened. We've allowed OBL et al. to draw us into a conflict in which we are the bad guys too. We've killed a lot more people in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars than OBL ever did. We've blown wedding parties to kingdom come and annihilated kite-flying kids.

Yes, there will be collateral damage in wars, but they were disproportionate wars, and arguably both wars of choice. The excuse, "You started it, so the rest is your fault," isn't going to fly. Evil has drawn us into the muck, and in the muck we've stayed for 10 years.

In the West we are raising moral equivalence to an art form.

I don't see this. We're fighting these wars, after all. It's not as though we took 9/11 lying down (nor do I think we should have, by the way).


Our adversaries recognize no such nuances. As Yeats foresaw,

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

I see the opposite happening: we got enraged by a gnat and swung wildly in all directions, gravely hurting others and ourselves.

I think the metaphor of the Dark Side of the Force in Star Wars is very apt. Once you turn to rage as a driving force in reaching your goals, it's quite hard to go back. The US is a big, dumb, 'roid-raging country now that I hardly recognize as my own. Even having the ostensibly liberal Obama as president has hardly changed things. It may be too late, at this point, to avoid the decent into fascism and collapse.

At the time of the Napoleonic Wars, humankind's footprint on the planet was small enough that we could kill each other to our hearts' content and still not kill the planet. We no longer have that luxury. We must now apply Love of Neighbor at the most fundamental level in order to survive.

That, in my view, does not require pacifism, and I don't believe in pacifism. But the military needs to be used as a scalpel, applied in the most precise and careful ways so as to provide such force as we must reluctantly use.

In the US, however, well... you've heard of the "military-industrial complex," I'm sure. It exists for the sake of its own "stakeholders," whose needs are by no means congruent with those of the country as a whole.

And in a world like that, the center does not hold.

Ah, one more:

And in a world like that, the center does not hold.

The "world like that" is really just "the world." The center never holds, ever. There will always be new conflicts and challenges. Our task, then, as a species is to create a framework for handling conflict without destroying ourselves and the planet.

Thanks rabbit :)

I agree with matt's comment in its entirety.

MP, I totally agree with the first five paragraphs of your post.

However, I think what is then overlooked is that Bin Laden and his followers would respond that the US fired the first shot in a global war; not AQ. Rather than the US as being forced into a violent response, he would say that he was the party forced into war; that the US' imperialism and it's support of Israel's violence against and political marginalization of the Palistinian's and it's propping up of dictators left him no choice. Just as we say that 9/11 left us no choice.

This is not moral equivalency. If Bin Laden is factually correct in his greivances (and I thin to a large extent he is), then, by your own definition of just war, Bin Laden was justified; regardless of whatever personal psychology was driving his actions (which we will never know).

But I disagree with both you and Bin Laden on the point that war is a useful and appropriate method when push comes to shove and defer to a different point you made earlier in the post. Bin Laden, with all of his financial resources, could have found a non-violent way to address the issues and probably would have ultimately been more successful.

Bin Laden had a choice in how to go about his mission. His choice to do select murder and mayhem as the tool is, indeed, what constitutes his spiritual demise. It's a big club.

Of course, the U.S. and British establishments "chose" to engage Iraq in conflict. There are lots of people in the world who feel compelled to engage others in violence but they're not stacked up on one "side".

Duality and separation are inherent and inescapable properties of the physical universe and most likely exist for a reason.

I am not defending Bin Ladin. He was my enemy because I am an American and he attacked my country. But I think it is very mistaken to say that anyone who takes humans lives is on the dark side. Then you would have to include the American founders when they fought against their British rulers. And you would have to include all militant revolutionary movements.

You say most of us don't try to kill anyone, but you don't wonder why we don't. As an American, I live in the most powerful military nation on earth. So I am seldom or never attacked. If someone tries to attack me, I call the police, since America has an effective law enforcement system.

In other words, I happen to be lucky in not having to physically defend myself. That is not true in all of the world. It's really easy for us to get complacent and congratulate ourselves on being peaceful.

I think Bin Laden and his followers were and are delusional fanatics and I would never excuse what they did. But from their perspective, they were fighting evil.

And we "advanced" "enlightened" people are delusional fanatics too, in our own way. Our civilization seems normal to us, but from a different perspective it could easily be seen as insane and out of control.

By the "two sides" in the conflict, I meant (side 1) modern secular government with respect for human rights, versus (side 2) primitive theocracy that denies human rights to women, nonbelievers, and pretty much anyone outside the ruling sect.

It's not the only conflict in the world, but it may be the most important one. Resolving it won't bring about utopia, but it's a conflict that will have to be resolved, one way or the other.

I disagree that Israel was wrong to invade Lebanon in response to repeated attacks launched from that country. I think the invasion of Lebanon was justified as an act of self-defense. So the fact that bin Laden used the invasion as a rationale for his terror campaign doesn't impress me.

RabbitDawg, I appreciate your comments. Incidentally, I think the term you meant to use was moral relativism, not moral relevancy.

I don't necessarily disagree that the war on terror has been mishandled. With the benefit of hindsight, I think the best response would have been to go into Afghanistan, capture or kill as many Al Qaeda operatives as possible, and leave. Staying there for ten years to nation-build is, IMO, a bad policy. As for Iraq, it probably would have been better if we hadn't gone to war at all.

But hindsight is always 20/20. And it's easy to forget the atmosphere of panic and rage that followed 9-11. There were people calling for the use of nuclear bombs in retaliation. Under the circumstances, we proceeded with a fair degree of deliberation and restraint, though, as I said, mistakes were made.

One of my favorite sayings is, "The perfect is the enemy of the good." When we evaluate things by a standard of perfection, we lose sight of what is already good. And since perfection is unattainable, we end up sacrificing real values for the sake of an impossible ideal. So we think, "Well, Al Qaeda is bad, but our country isn't perfect either." Meanwhile Al Qaeda has no such reservations about itself. We end up in a fog of moral equivalence, where "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

"By the "two sides" in the conflict, I meant (side 1) modern secular government with respect for human rights, versus (side 2) primitive theocracy that denies human rights to women, nonbelievers, and pretty much anyone outside the ruling sect."

Michael, the point I was making is that I'm mistrustful about any attempt to divide the world into two neat camps, with one side as clearly being in the right.

For example, as soon as you try to divide the world into socialists vs capitalists, you begin to realize that this world needs the insights of both.

With secular government and theocracy, you run into a similar quandary.

Honestly, is it even accurate to say that our government IS secular? Could any president be elected who was not perceived to be a man of God, and whose religious views and principles were not thoroughly vetted and approved by the electorate?

A theocracy is defined, first and foremost, as a nation under god. You'll notice that on our dollar bill it says: In God we trust. Not: Reason shall prevail.

And that's as it should be. In that sense, theocracy is a good thing. God SHOULD come first. Would you and I be looking for the spiritual wisdom in every last NDE if we felt differently?

Of course, the problem arises in trying to INTERPRET God's will.

Now I agree with you: we do a better job at that than the Taliban. But you see, that's the point. The adversarial relationship you propose really boils down to this: we like our theocracy better than theirs.

Michael,

I agree with you about the perfect being the enemy of the good.

When it comes to our current wars in the Middle East, however, I don't think we're at the nit-picking level. These are massive debacles that have killed a ton of people, cost us ton of money and our own citizens' lives, and resulted in our signing on to being the abused constable of the region for the long term.

And I don't think Bush's and Cheney's intentions were good, to begin with.

Do you disagree that the history books are not going to be very kind to us on this one?

Michael,

Beautiful ending to this post! I love it!

"By the "two sides" in the conflict, I meant (side 1) modern secular government with respect for human rights, versus (side 2) primitive theocracy that denies human rights to women, nonbelievers, and pretty much anyone outside the ruling sect."

In addition to what Bruce said on the topic;


Israel denies voting rights to Arab citizens. So how is it a democracy? How are the governments of Saudi Arabia and other states, that we support, democracies. How was the Shah of Iran - another sock puppet of the US - a promoter of democracy? Where is the concern for human rights?

Our record re; in that region (as well as others) as being the good guys is, well, not good. These are facts. And these facts get us into trouble over and over again. Many people that attack us and/or our "allies" have very good reason by your own standard of "just war".

We made communism look attractive in the banana republics and we made fundementalist Islam look attractive in the M.E. because we backed oppressive - sometimes downright barbarous - governments that gave the people no voice. On those occassions when the people attempted change, we thwarted them; including assassinations of elected leaders and direct military aid, including personnel, to the the oppressive gov'ts. The people of these countries know this even if our news channels dare not speak of it.

As far as Israel's right to invade invade Lebanon because the PLO attacked them, the PLO attacked because Israel attacked them and that action was carried out because the PLO attacked Isael which they did because Israel ostensibly took their good land and made them second class citizens; which Israel says it did because the PLO deserved being treated that way.

You only favor Israel in all of that because that is the party line of your politics. Once examined objectively, that spin doesn't hold up. Why should the PLO submit any more than the American colonists should have submitted to the crown?

And I sort of interested in your take on Bin laden's personal vision of society. I happen to know that leadership in our military and governemnt contains people of all sorts of unpleasant philosophical leanings. Ayn Randians are common. There are corporatists and facists too; even some royalists. I'm sure their vision of an ideal society is not at all about freedom.

Captain America is a comic book.

And, while I'm a roll.....that Bin Laden spent his wealth on waging war is another interesting observation. He did also spend some on various educational and public programs.

Kind of like a country we all know that spends a huge bulk of its wealth on a military while deciding how to cut - if fund at all - public infrastructure, education, healthcare, etc.

The most recent post on this blog I like to frequent says it all;

http://rangeragainstwar.blogspot.com/

Hoorah! Bin Laden's dead...meanwhile the economy all around that shabby billboard shows all of the signs of decline and despair.

We can't seem to take care of our citizens, but we can sure wage us some war.

So, there are plenty of displaced values to go around as evidenced here and on my previous comment.

And so, at the end of the day, MP, you have, at best, "our ideas are better than his and that gives us the right." But that is an academic argument since our actions don't live up to our ideas at all concerning the global stage. It is also a subjective viewpoint any how.

Really, all you have is my tribe versus yours. Period. And then a bunch of poorly examined justifications to make you feel ok about that.

On the other hand, it is possible that the tide is turning. We are allowing some uprising against former friends in dictatorships (like Egypt). So maybe we are getting better. Then again, maybe Bin Laden helped us get there by drawing us into two futile but educational military adventures and helping send us towards financial insovency such that we had to let the friendly dictators go.

The world is funny with unintended consequences and unforeseen results.

The only thing we can foresee is that there will be unforeseen results.

Bin Laden mission is to kill all americans he was very sure it seems that he could wipe america off the face of the planet as well as any allies that would help america. I wonder what everyone thinks of this recent statement by Stephen Hawking. I think hes wrong on his opinion but there is more than that in his statement. Its at the last sentence of his statement.

He says,

"I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark"

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/may/15/stephen-hawking-interview-there-is-no-heaven

To keep the post as compact as possible:

Sometimes the right thing to do is the wrong thing to do.

USA is far from innocent in this regard.
I believe both sides are wrong by the laws of (spiritual) nature and only one side is right for the freedom of the western world.

"RabbitDawg, I appreciate your comments. Incidentally, I think the term you meant to use was moral relativism, not moral relevancy."

LOL, yup Michael, you're right. I openly admit that in the circles I travel in, sometimes we don't know what how to talk no good English, but we try to make complete sentences ;-)


As far as this tit-for-tat in the thread over whether to go to war, and how deep we should get, or how Ossama might have been good in his world but bad in ours, I fall back on my own little twist in interpretation of the Original Sin doctrine.

It all comes down to "Welcome to humanity - sometimes we can't win for losing", at least when it comes to ethics and morality. There are so many situations in life where we find ourselves having to make decisions and take actions that can be interpreted as wrong if we do, yet wrong from another point of view if we don't. This applies at the personal as well as at the larger group/national/world level. Sometimes all we can do is search our souls and make the best, most honest and highly ethical decision that we can given the circumstances. Even if it might be interpreted as wrong. Otherwise, the world runs right over you.

Live and learn :-)

"Could any president be elected who was not perceived to be a man of God, and whose religious views and principles were not thoroughly vetted and approved by the electorate?"

Umm ... how about our current president? Do you have any idea what Obama's "religious views and principles" might be? My personal suspicion is that he's an atheist, though I have nothing against him in that regard. Abraham Lincoln was probably also an atheist at the start of his presidency, though he seems to have become more religious (and was possibly influenced by Spiritualism) as the war dragged on. Paying some lip service to religion is usually all that presidential candidates need do. In fact, making too much of religion is usually fatal to a candidate's chances.

The US is not a theocracy. There's a sharp difference between a society that respects religion as a private matter and makes occasional "official" genuflections toward religious feelings in minor symbolic ways, and a society that enforces religious observance on pain of death. The unwillingness to draw such distinctions attests to the crisis in confidence that the western world is facing. We've become "men without chests," in C.S. Lewis's phrase.

No one, I disagree with your characterization of Israel, but there's no point in arguing over a subject that you obviously feel strongly about.

"Really, all you have is my tribe versus yours. Period."

I'm afraid I don't see it that way, which is where the bit about objective values comes in. You're certainly entitled to believe that the differences between the Taliban and the US amount to a clash of tribes with no larger import, though if you were ever to live under Taliban rule, you might possibly find yourself reconsidering your position.

By luck or synchronicity, I watched the great Howard Hawks movie "Sergeant York" last night. Although cornball in some ways, it's still a stirring dramatization of the conflict between pacifism (grounded in religious principles) and the need to defend civilization by violence if necessary. The film explores this issue in surprising depth. Those interested in this discussion might enjoy checking it out.

"Do you have any idea what Obama's "religious views and principles" might be?"

I don't, Michael, and if it's true, as you say, that "making too much of religion is usually fatal to a candidate's chances," maybe it's understandable that Obama hasn't revealed much about his spirituality.

I just don't see the evidence pointing to Obama being an atheist, nor does a brief look online turn up much. If he were, don't you think Hillary Clinton's people, or McCain's, would have found evidence to that effect and used it against him?

I did find this:

"Also, it’s worth remembering that despite his non-religious early life, Obama claims to have adopted religion in his adult years – specifically, the mid-80s. This was before he made any political moves, and around the time he moved to Chicago and met Michelle. It’s not like he’s the first person to have become religious while adult, and when developing a new relationship with a significant other.

If Obama has been secretly an atheist for three decades, and all his closest friends and family have helped him hide the truth, that’s one hell of a successful conspiracy."

But sleep beckons . . . have to leave the rest for later.

..But Osama bin Laden didn't do that. Quite the opposite: he wanted to start a war..

And how would you then characterize the meaningless invasion of Iraq in 2003?

MP, I guess we will have to respectfully agree to disagree on a few points.


"You're certainly entitled to believe that the differences between the Taliban and the US amount to a clash of tribes with no larger import, though if you were ever to live under Taliban rule, you might possibly find yourself reconsidering your position."

Just a few thoughts;
1. Someone likes the Taliban or they wouldn't be able to control the better part of a country as tribal, well armed and unruley as Afghanistan. In fact the taliban were welcomed at first as they brought order and stability with them. Later, when they became crazed in their application of ridiculous civil restrictions, supposedly based on Islam, the people became dissatisfied. But what would replace the Taliban. Right now we have another corrupt ruler that lacks the backing of the populace who would be dead in short time absent our presence. And with the departure of karzai? Tribal drug lords would batle out their dividing lines. The solution to these problems must be worked out by the people themselves; not by foreign imposition because the imposition just rallies the people around the most militant radical leaders.
2. Many,perhaps most, people in the Islamic world do prefer their law to be based on some form of Sharia. Maybe not the most oppressive forms like we see with the Taliban, but Koran based all the same. Who are we to tell them otherwise?
3. The Islamic world and its beliefs was not a problem for us until recently. Afghanistan, despite its strict religious bent, was a relatively OK functional society pre-Soviet invasion. Even Iraq was quite modern regarding women's rights; with a thriving middle class economy.
Islamic culture, even sharia based societies, cannot be the problem, or it would have been prior to the past two or three decades as well. Something else happened to cause the US to be the target of certain factions.
4. That something else has been explicity spoken to by the declared enemies of the US. The US support of Israel and Israel's behavior towards Arabs is on the top of the greivance list. So is the US support of dictators from the Shah of Iran down through the Saudi Kings. Also on the list is US militray presence in the region.

"I watched the great Howard Hawks movie "Sergeant York" last night. Although cornball in some ways, it's still a stirring dramatization of the conflict between pacifism (grounded in religious principles) and the need to defend civilization by violence if necessary. "

Great movie. A classic!

Here is something I think you don't understand. I served my country as did my father before me and his father before him. My children are now serving (one is an Army Lt being deployed to Afghanistan next month and one is Navy Intel who has been involved in both the Afghan and Iraq operations). If I was born Palistinian, I'd probably join the PLO. If I was born Afghan, I'd have fought the Russians and I'd be fighting the US today.

A fighter's dharma is to fight for his people. Yes, there a few who go in in all bright eyed and bushy tailed about spreading freedom and democracy or whatever notions of a higher cause his government is peddling, but fewer come out believing any of that.

"....the need to defend civilization by violence if necessary." Civilization means different things to different people. The Taliban believe they are defending their civilization against foreign invaders.

It's all the stary eyed hyperbolic propaganda - saving civilization, spreading freedom, doing Allah's will, etc etc ad nauseum - that gets young men to pick up a weapon and kill other young men with whom the have no personal beef.

No one learns a better way by having a rifle stuck in their face and their neighbors gunned down. They only learn to hate and fight back; if not today, then tomorrow.

If our ideas are so much better, then our example should be enough to cause other societies to, sooner or later, emmulate us; especially in this age of instant mass communications.

Rather than projecting violence and imposed control over societies - whether directly or via proxy, we need to project what is best about our ideals.

Projecting violence does not have a good track record with regards to establishing a lasting evolution towards a better world.

No one, I'm not in favor of nation-building. As I said earlier, we should have left Afghanistan after retaliating against Al Qaeda, and probably should not have invaded Iraq at all (although the latter is easier to see with the benefit of hindsight). For the most part I'm in favor of violence only when used in self-defense. I agree that self-defense can be a tricky concept in international relations, and that reasonable people can often disagree about which side "started it."

Bruce, I'm not insisting that Obama is an atheist. I just haven't seen any evidence of religiosity or spirituality in him, unless you count his attendance at Rev. Wright's church, which I see as a politically motivated move to establish a base of electoral support. But I could be wrong. As I said, his religious views are opaque to me. That's my point - nobody knows where he stands in terms of religion, yet he got elected. The only overtly religious presidents in recent memory are George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. Reagan made rhetorical references to God but never attended church. Clinton and George H.W. Bush kept their religion to themselves. In general, American voters prefer candidates to be discreet about their religion.

There are some religious positions that would probably preclude seeking the presidency. For instance, imagine a candidate who was a Spiritualist! He would be branded a nut by the media, would be seen as a tool of Satan by evangelicals, and would be ridiculed as a gullible cretin by his opponents. This was true even in Spiritualism's heyday, and it's far more true today. So I think most of us can forget about throwing our hats in the ring!

"most of us can forget about throwing our hats in the ring!"

No, we could just avoid talking about religion, and if anyone asks what we are, say Christian. I don't talk about my spiritualist beliefs at my job, or with anyone, unless I suspect they believe the same. We may have had spiritualist presidents already, they just didn't talk about it.

"There are some religious positions that would probably preclude seeking the presidency. For instance, imagine a candidate who was a Spiritualist! "

Michael, thanks for pointing this out. It helps me to clarify what I was trying to say, or to modify it really. (WhichI need to do because of the excellent points you make about the difference between a genuine theocracy and our own system.)

This all started, remember, because of the us-vs-them scenario you're proposing: those villainous theocrats, on the one hand, and the US on the other, with our "modern secular" approach.

So instead of talking about theocracy, I'd like to speak instead of a dogmatic, ideological, worldview. Sometimes this DIW (for short) is claimed to derive from a spiritual source (the Koran for them), but in other cases, it stems from a newer "religion": the adoration of materialist science and technology (often the case for us, though our own DIW has other sources, too).

And looked at in this way, I think the argument can be made that both "sides" have blinders on, and that both claim to act righteously while often doing great harm.

In that sense, I think, we are equals.

I wish I had more time to flesh out this argument!

I just want to add that I'm really enjoying your blog these days. Such an interesting mix of thinkers, and I'm particularly pleased with the spirit and tone of the conversation.

I've seen so many discussions--online and elsewhere--degenerate into rants, sniping, sarcasm, and other unpleasantness. Yet, for the most part, we seem to be able to disagree without putting each other down.

This has been particularly noticeable to me recently, as we've ventured into territory that is decidedly more political.

Another possibility: what I'm really noticing is a change that's happening within ME, and it has little to do with this blog.

Either way, it's a good thing. :o)

"No, we could just avoid talking about religion, and if anyone asks what we are, say Christian."

True. That wouldn't work for me, though. I have a paper trail!

"I just want to add that I'm really enjoying your blog these days."

Thanks, Bruce. I enjoy your comments, even when I sometimes disagree. I feel the same about everyone's comments, actually.

Michael, in line with our conversation about presidential aspirations and the difference between theocracies and other governments, I ran into something like this somewhere:

To declare yourself an atheist in the US is political suicide. To do so in Iran, is suicide, period.

I am enjoying this conversation too. I know I am probably being a bit more edgey in my comments than normally. That is because I feel so pasionately about this subject. I very much appreciate the civil tone in response; especially from our host who I know feels strongly as well about his, very different in some aspects from mine, perspective.

"So instead of talking about theocracy, I'd like to speak instead of a dogmatic, ideological, worldview."

There was much wisdom in your comment, IMO.

"...I'm not in favor of nation-building. As I said earlier, we should have left Afghanistan after retaliating against Al Qaeda, and probably should not have invaded Iraq at all..."

But we did. And we have and we will do again in the future.

We do these things. That is the problem.

"There was much wisdom in your comment, IMO."

Thanks, no one! I enjoy your contributions, too. I like this, in particular:

"We made communism look attractive in the banana republics and we made fundementalist Islam look attractive in the M.E. because we backed oppressive - sometimes downright barbarous - governments that gave the people no voice. "

Brilliant post.

No one, right after quoting you in my previous comment, I read about Obama's speech today. Seems like we may be beginning to reverse that trend!

"I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark"

How can you be surprised by this position from a professor in physics? Is it because you can identify yourself by being afraid of the dark?

As I said earlier, we should have left Afghanistan after retaliating against Al Qaeda, and probably should not have invaded Iraq at all...

It's a small, ignoble hobby-horse but I'm opposed to "we"'s when discussing matters of the state. The U.S./U.K. governments invaded Iraq, for example, through their own volition, not that of their nation's people's, and in their own interests, not those of we mere citizens. The trouble is that if we align ourselves with them we're more inclined to see their actions in a charitable light.

"I'm opposed to "we"'s when discussing matters of the state. The U.S./U.K. governments invaded Iraq"

But we the voters elected those governments, so we are, in fact, aligned with them. I didn't vote for Obama, but he is still "my" president (and "our" president). A sense of national solidarity is necessary if a society is to survive.

But we the voters elected those governments, so we are, in fact, aligned with them.

Exactly. So you are part-guilty in the atrocities commited by US soldiers thoughout the world. I can't see any moral arguments for claiming the people of the west are the betters of those in Afghanistan and Iraq when it comes to what I would define as civilized moral values based on christianity.

But we the voters elected those governments, so we are, in fact, aligned with them.

But we're not responsible for the acts they choose to follow. (Except inasmuch as our actions/inactions aid them.)

A sense of national solidarity is necessary if a society is to survive.

It's arguable the state need be a factor in this...(Though, having thrown odd that little nod to anarchists, it's not an argument I feel equipped to have!) Even so, we go through life among communities without sharing responsibility for all the actions that might spring from them. So, we all have bonds with our families, friends and favourite football players but their actions remain their own. (With the proviso, again, that we might render ourselves complicit.)

Still BenSix, we are government of, for and by the people. If that is not true, then we are not even a shadow of what we say we are. the Bush admin pulled some ridiculously bad stuff in its first admin. They fooled a lot of people. They lied their way into a war of choice and aggression. The thing is, they were re-elected after doing so. Therefore, the people approved of Bush and what he did.

BTW, I highly recommend reading the article I am linking to here:

http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/1627/a-critique-of-reporting-on-the-middle-east

It is germane to the topic and it is a sober and accurate telling, by a respected journalist who's been there, of what this 'freedom and democracy' that we spread really looks like. There are reasons they don't like us.

Having read through the comments, I’m no longer sure which two mindsets you were referring to at the end of your blog post, Michael. I originally thought you were advocating the peace and goodwill (Gandhi’s) approach, but now you seem to be siding with the U.S. state/government, which is more closely aligned with Osama bin Laden’s approach than with Gandhi’s.

Hrvoje, the two mindsets are 1) western secular democracy vs. 2) radical Islamist theocracy.

"They lied their way into a war of choice and aggression." - no one

I wouldn't say "lied." Most of the world believed that Saddam Hussein had restarted his WMD program. Hussein himself seems to have believed it. His top henchmen were apparently deceiving him and pocketing the money allocated to WMD projects, then planting phony intel to cover their tracks. Our intel agencies were caught up in this elaborate deception. No doubt there was some confirmation bias at work -- reports favorable to the WMD thesis were given more weight than reports critical of it -- but this is true in any controversy, since a total lack of bias is impossible. In any event, the assumption that Hussein was again developing WMDs was plausible, given his long history of developing and even using these weapons.

The whole thing was, in a sense, a (tragic) comedy of errors. That's why I say that in hindsight it's clear we should not have gone in. But it was not clear at the time. Go back and read the news reports before the war, when most of the UN inspectors, many world leaders, and even many prominent Democrats were agreeing that Hussein probably had WMDs. That was the consensus. It turned out to be wrong.

"Most of the world believed that Saddam Hussein had restarted his WMD program"

Yes, but....there were inspectors in country pre-invasion and they were coming up empty handed. Why invade if inspectors were doing their job and especially if they were doing their job and finding nothing?

I strongly disagree that our intel agencies were deceived. It is a myth. It is understandable how someone with no experience in this area could be led to believe that was the case. In fact the media helped with the smoke and mirrors. That they and the administration tried so hard in this regard is a tell. However, to someone with some background, the inability of the inspectors to find wmd was further confirmation of what was obvious; there were no wmd. Detection of the presence of wmd in Iraq circa 2002 would have been a simple matter. Believe me, there are many methods.

Any confirmation bias was from The Office of Special Plans which was set up y the Bush admin. specifically to make the case for war.

"In any event, the assumption that Hussein was again developing WMDs was plausible, given his long history of developing and even using these weapons."

Only if you consider poison gas a wmd. I have never understood this. Gas was developed as an alternative to conventional high explosives when the enemy is protected from HE in defilade, bunkers, buildings and other heavily protected cover. The gas can seep in and create casualties where the enemy is otherwise safe from concusion and shrapnel. The casualties per ton of ordnance ratio for gas is not greater than - in fact less than - HE.

Gas has to be delivered in very large amounts to be effective as a mass killer. Delivery systems are typically wing assets and artillery. Unless Saddam was going to set up a fire control base on Long Island from which he would have his cannons lob gas shells into Manhattan, I don't think that his possession of gas would be a problem for us. As far as people in closer proximity are concerned, he'd probably kill them better with HE than with the gas. As I said before, dead is dead; gas, HE, bullet, what is the difference? Photos of Kurds killed by gas are moving. Why more so than scenes of Kurds killed by bullets and bombs? because we never saw the latter? Media manipulation.......

That is why the rest of the world didn't care if Saddam had gas or not. It was a red herring used to scare the populace. That is why the UN hadn't acted on any suspicions in the past; not because they are a bunch of weak effete euro-trash as the US media tried to portray them (freedom fries anyone?).

The nuclear accusations were a joke. The 'yellow cake' story was disproven long before the shooting started. Other than that, what was there? Aluminum tubes that were proven to be nothing of concern within 24 hours of their appearance on MSM? Why were the tubes trotted out to us in the first place? they were shown to be non-nuclear weapon related long before the media got a hold of the story. Nuclear weapons are really really hard to make. The technology involved is very traceable.

As far as anthrax and other bio weapons are concerned. if someone wanted to attack the US with that class of weapon, they would do better for themselves to manufacture in some basement right here as opposed to concocting in Iraq and then trying to smuggle it into the target country. the raw ingredients are very concealable, the finished product less so.

So those social pardons of Bush don't hold water for me. I don't see any causus belli.

Interesting points, no one. I agree about poison gas, actually. I studied WMDs a little when writing a thriller (Next Victim) in which a serial killer gets hold of a canister of nerve gas. It seems to me that the terrorist potential of this kind of weapon is limited. In general, poison gas is used to clear specific areas by forcing the enemy combatants to retreat. So you can usually escape from poison gas just by running away. It is effective only in a confined area like a subway train.

Still, I think Bush & Co. genuinely believed they would find poison gas, bioweapons, and even nuclear facilities. Otherwise why make such a point of saying Saddam has WMDs, when you know your story will be disproved and you will be discredited? I think they believed it, in part, because they wanted to believe it. But to some extent that is true of us all. We are all prone to confirmation bias, and we all get caught up in the positions we take and the roles we play. See my latest post for more on this.

"Still, I think Bush & Co. genuinely believed they would find poison gas, bioweapons, and even nuclear facilities. Otherwise why make such a point of saying Saddam has WMDs, when you know your story will be disproved and you will be discredited?"

I agree. That is strange. The are many different plausible explanations. I don't like the ramifications of any of them.

Even if they really were vicitms of confirmation bias, it's still pretty scary.

Still, I think Bush & Co. genuinely believed they would find poison gas, bioweapons, and even nuclear facilities. Otherwise why make such a point of saying Saddam has WMDs, when you know your story will be disproved and you will be discredited?

I think there are two points that can be made. (1) That if they did suspect Saddam had WMDs that needn't mean they didn't lie. If I thought my neighbour had a gun (which would be quite uncontroversial for Americans but bear with my British perspective) it wouldn't legitimise my telling the police he had an arsenal stacked with hardware. (2) Perhaps they didn't fear their claims being invalidated. After all, there have been no material consequences! The war rolled on and they're still free, rich, respected men.

I believe they did lie. Some events worth musing on are the attempts to link Saddam with the anthrax letters; the promotion of the non-existent British "ricin factory"; Colin Powell's hyperbolic speech to the UN and the decidedly sexed-up September dossier.

BenSix,

I think MP is correct in his assertion that Bush & co reasonably believed that they would find some chemical weapons. They probably figured they would maximize that find publicity-wise and get a pass from the public. Heck, even I thought some old stocks of nerve gas would turn up in some dusty and largely forgotten armory.

This still represents a scam on Bush's part, IMO.

Are you familiar with the Niven & Pournelle novel 'Inferno'? It's a fantasy novel (I suppose) in which a 70's sf writer dies and finds himself in the hell Dante imagined.

Whatever your political leanings (I suppose that novel can be best classed as libertarian) there are some interesting thinking in it about redemption and what might it take to get through to some of the more stubborn individuals, and how hard it might be to realize you were wrong about something no matter how strong the evidence given you that you were.

They recently wrote a sequel, but it's not quite as interesting as the first.

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