Monday, April 4, 2011

P.Z. Myers and Matt Welch on Koran burnings and free speech in a time of war....and it looks like we'll always be at war

From P.Z. Myers, of the Pharyngula blog:

Sometimes, issues demand nuance. This is a complicated world and there are a great many subjects that simply aren't reducible to binaries — we do a disservice to the subtleties when we discard them in favor of absolutes. And often I can agree that we need depth and breadth of understanding if we're to navigate a difficult situation.

But sometimes the issues are black and white. Sometimes the answers are clear and absolute. And in those cases, attempts to bring out the watercolors and soften the story by blurring the edges do a disservice to reality. There are places where there are no ambiguities, and the only appropriate response is flat condemnation. And we witness them every day.

....I know what it is like to lose someone you love, and it's a pain so great that I can't imagine reaching out to cause that pain in anyone else; what killers must do is blind themselves to the enormity of their act and wall themselves off from the empathy that all human beings should have. They also must bury that portion of their mind that can sympathize with their victims in an avalanche of pretexts, these excuses that later apologists will call "nuance", or "shades of gray", or "complications". And they will dredge up the familiar roll call of empty ghosts to water down the evil of what is done. They will call it God. Country. Honor. Justice. Revenge. The priests and the mullahs and the politicians and the generals are experts at softening the contrast and blurring the edges and persuading one person that that other person over there, so much like you in every way that matters, deserves to have everything important extinguished and brutalized and disregarded.

They are so damned good at it that they can stir up the killing frenzy over anything at all. A gang of fanatics, driven by superstition and ethnic bigotry, kill thousands in a terrorist attack in one country. So zealots stir up their own froth of superstition and ethnic bigotry, and convince the targeted country to attack and kill people of yet another country that had nothing to do with the terrorist attack. What a waste of lives, yet everyone on both sides is smug and confident that the deaths on the other side were warranted.

Or even more ridiculously remote: one side takes such extreme offense at the lack of reverence shown by a few people on the other side towards some copy of a sacred object, that they then slaughter unrelated targets.
Stirred up by three angry mullahs who urged them to avenge the burning of a Koran at a Florida church, thousands of protesters on Friday overran the compound of the United Nations in this northern Afghan city, killing at least 12 people, Afghan and United Nations officials said.

Unable to find Americans on whom to vent their anger, the mob turned instead on the next-best symbol of Western intrusion — the nearby United Nations headquarters. "Some of our colleagues were just hunted down," said a spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Kieran Dwyer, in confirming the attack.
These twelve people were human beings, reduced to a statistic in a newspaper article, and dehumanized and exterminated by a mindless mob, inflamed by religious fanatics. Similarly, the hundred thousand or more killed in Iraq, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, all of these are also genuine, thinking, feeling human beings, wiped out in a cold-hearted calculus of delusion and greed. There is no justification sufficient for these acts.

Yet somehow we get lost in the wrong questions. Do we have the right to burn the Koran? Is it unreasonable to think that Afghans might have cause to be angry? Should we not defend the right of fascist politicians to live, and perhaps it is OK to grant a limited license to murder to certain people if they are of the correct political stripe or the appropriate faith? Shall we weigh the sins of a Florida preacher against those of three Afghan clerics, and come up with a number that will tell us which is the greater offender, and by how much?

I'm an extremist in this debate, I will freely confess. I hold an absolute view that no killing is ever justified, that individuals have the necessity to defend themselves against assailants, but that even that does not grant moral approval to snuffing out the life of another. Don't even try to pull out a scale and toss a copy of the Koran on one side and the life of a single human being on the other — the comparison is obscene. Do not try to tell me that some people are 'moderates' when they tolerate or even support and applaud war and death and murder for any cause, whether it is oil, or getting even, or defending the honor of wood pulp and ink.

The bone is bleached white. The flesh is burnt black. The blood splashes scarlet. You can't render it in grays and pastels without losing sight of the truth.

Hit the link to read the whole thing.  One of the best he's ever written. 

And now for something completely different....Here's the ultra libertarian Reason magazine's Matt Welch, hammering away at the same subject, but from a totally different worldview. 

Let me describe the lengths of my appreciation for the First Amendment

Here's what Sen. Lindsey Graham(R-S.C.) said today about Florida pastor Terry Jones' burning of a
Koran, which has been used an excuse by Afghanis to murder 22 people, including seven United Nations workers:
I wish we could find some way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we're in a war. During World War II, you had limits on what you could do if it inspired the enemy.
More politician condemnations of Jones here.
You know what? We're always going to be in a war, thanks in no small part to the Lindsey Grahams of the world. Which means if we truly value our free speech, we're gonna have to bounce out every politician who subjects American expression to a wartime litmus test. Better yet, maybe start electing some who at least
occasionally refrain from supporting new wars against majority-Muslim countries that have yet to make it through a Reformation.
Because when we have a political class as routinely venal as Lindsey Graham—or Time's Joe Klein, who really did write that "Jones's act was murderous as any suicide bomber's"—that means that war-inspired censorship is always just a shout away.

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