A Philosopher's Blog

Three Deaths

Posted in Ethics, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 17, 2009

Three killings have attracted a great deal of media attention recently. In one case, a military recruiter was murdered, apparently because of the alleged killer’s religious and political views. In another case, a doctor was killed, apparently because of the alleged killer’s religious beliefs about abortion. In the most recent incident, a guard was killed at the Holocaust Museum. In this case, the alleged killer is said to have been motivated by racist views.

When such horrific events occur, people try to determine why. Some of this is due to a desire to prevent future incidents and part of it is due to simple curiousity. In each of these cases, some people have placed the blame for the actions of the alleged killers upon their membership in various groups. These groups are then often painted with a broad, bloody brush in the form of claims that these groups actively encourage such violence.

In the case of the military recruiter, some alleged that such violence is inherent to the character of Islam. In the case of the doctor, it was alleged by some that the pro-life movement encourages such violence against doctors and that it is to blame for the killing. In the case of the guard, it has been claimed that the alleged killer is a product of the conservative movement or the liberal movement (depending on who you ask).

While all three alleged killers had involvement with particular groups and movements (Islam, pro-life and right wing organizations), only the third case involved the alleged killer being an active member of racist groups known to advocate violence. However, the general conservative movement is not such a group. While I have heard people try to draw, for example, a causal chain between Rush Limbaugh and the alleged killer of the guard, this sort of claim is absurd. While I do not agree with Rush on most issues, he does not advocate such violence.

The same holds in the case of the death of the doctor. While there are pro-life people who (in horrible irony) advocate killing doctors who perform abortions, the majority of pro-life people are just that-pro-life. They do not advocate murder, nor are they joyful when a doctor is murdered.

Likewise in the case of the recruiter. While some Muslims hate Americans and would be glad to kill one of us, most Muslims are not so inclined.

The evidence seems to be that in each of these cases, the alleged killer acted alone. There also seems to be good reason to suspect some sort of mental instability in each case. As such, while such killings might be portrayed as revealing something about Islam, pro-choice, and conservative groups, they do not. They show that people can chose to do terrible things based on their moral, religious and political views. Naturally, some folks have tried to use these awful incidents to criticize and attack the people they disagree with. However, that is a mistake-both moral and logical.

This is not to say that groups do not exist that have such murders as their goals. Sadly, there are such groups. However, these groups should not be lumped together with other groups that happen to have some similarities. For example, Islam should not be defined by Al Qaeda anymore than conservatives should be defined by the KKK.  While it is easy to swing a bloody brush across a vast swath, reason and ethics requires us to have better aim.

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  1. [...] Detroit right now across the river. RUSH: Right. CLARK: Okay. He did not get approved for Harbor Three Deaths – aphilosopher.wordpress.com 06/18/2009 Three killings have attracted a great deal of media [...]

  2. T. J. Babson said, on June 18, 2009 at 7:12 am

    It seems pretty clear that in 2 of the cases, involving the military recruiter and the abortion doctor, the ideologies of Islam and the pro-life movement played a key role. In the third case, the 88-year-old man seems to be just a nut.

    As always, it is important to distinguish between the ideology and the adherents of the ideology. “Islam” is not synonymous with “Muslims.” So, while it is true that Al Qaeda is not representative of most Muslims, it is also true that Al Qaeda is representative of Islam in that the group’s behavior is perfectly consistent with mainstream schools of Islamic theology and jurisprudence.

    Likewise, the pro-life movement labeled Dr. Tiller as a “mass murderer.” In my view this amounts to putting a target on his back.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 18, 2009 at 1:59 pm

      Von Brunn was quite active with various hate groups. As such, he could be seen as part of that movement as well.

      I’m not a religious scholar, but mainstream Islam seems to reject the sort of stuff that Al Qaeda does and their views. For example, they are clearly enemies with the Shiite branch of Islam (considering them heretics to be killed). Mainstream Islam of the Shiite variety clearly does not back Al Qaeda. Also, most Sunni Muslims seem to be against that view as well.

      Labeling a person a “mass murderer” is not the same as advocating that person’s death. But, I will agree that the rhetoric can be rather inflammatory.

      • T. J. Babson said, on June 18, 2009 at 2:58 pm

        From a former jihadist. I think this is exactly right.

        http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-465570/I-fanatic–I-know-thinking-says-radical-Islamist.html#

        How do Islamic radicals justify such terror in the name of their religion?

        There isn’t enough room to outline everything here, but the foundation of extremist reasoning rests upon a model of the world in which you are either a believer or an infidel.

        Formal Islamic theology, unlike Christian theology, does not allow for the separation of state and religion: they are considered to be one and the same.

        For centuries, the reasoning of Islamic jurists has set down rules of interaction between Dar ul-Islam (the Land of Islam) and Dar ul-Kufr (the Land of Unbelief) to cover almost every matter of trade, peace and war.

        But what radicals and extremists do is to take this two steps further. Their first step has been to argue that, since there is no pure Islamic state, the whole world must be Dar ul-Kufr (The Land of Unbelief).

        Step two: since Islam must declare war on unbelief, they have declared war upon the whole world.

        Along with many of my former peers, I was taught by Pakistani and British radical preachers that this reclassification of the globe as a Land of War (Dar ul-Harb) allows any Muslim to destroy the sanctity of the five rights that every human is granted under Islam: life, wealth, land, mind and belief.

        In Dar ul-Harb, anything goes, including the treachery and cowardice of attacking civilians.

        The notion of a global battlefield has been a source of friction for Muslims living in Britain.

        For decades, radicals have been exploiting the tensions between Islamic theology and the modern secular state – typically by starting debate with the question: “Are you British or Muslim?”

        But the main reason why radicals have managed to increase their following is because most Muslim institutions in Britain just don’t want to talk about theology.

        They refuse to broach the difficult and often complex truth that Islam can be interpreted as condoning violence against the unbeliever – and instead repeat the mantra that Islam is peace and hope that all of this debate will go away.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on June 18, 2009 at 6:24 pm

          That does seem to be the tactic employed to convince some Muslims that terrorist actions are compatible with their faith. But the question arises as to whether that is the correct interpretation of the faith. There is also the rather difficult question of what it is to even be a correct interpretation.

          Some Islamic scholars argue in justification of terrorist tactics while others condemn them. Which is the true Islam? Or is there even such a thing? After all, if religions are fictions (that is, people making stuff up), then there would be no more a true Islam then there would be a true version of, say, vampire or dragon lore.

          If religion is not a fiction, then the true religion is easy enough to define-that is the one that gets the metaphysics and theology correct. Naturally, every believer claims that this is his/her faith; but they cannot all be right.

          • T. J. Babson said, on June 18, 2009 at 7:02 pm

            Steven Weinberg reviews Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion — exactly on target

            http://tls.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,25349-2552017,00.html

            Where I think Dawkins goes wrong is that, like Henry V after Agincourt, he does not seem to realize the extent to which his side has won. Setting aside the rise of Islam in Europe, the decline of serious Christian belief among Europeans is so widely advertised that Dawkins turns to the United States for most of his examples of unregenerate religious belief. He attributes the greater regard for religion in the US to the fact that Americans have never had an established Church, an idea he may have picked up from Tocqueville. But although most Americans may be sure of the value of religion, as far as I can tell they are not very certain about the truth of what their own religion teaches. According to a recent article in the New York Times, American evangelists are in despair over a poll that showed that only 4 per cent of American teenagers will be “Bible-believing Christians” as adults. The spread of religious toleration provides evidence of the weakening of religious certitude. Most Christian groups have historically taught that there is no salvation without faith in Christ. If you are really sure that anyone without such faith is doomed to an eternity of Hell, then propagating that faith and suppressing disbelief would logically be the most important thing in the world – far more important than any merely secular virtues like religious toleration. Yet religious toleration is rampant in America. No one who publicly expressed disrespect for any particular religion could be elected to a major office.

            Even though American atheists might have trouble winning elections, Americans are fairly tolerant of us unbelievers. My many good friends in Texas who are professed Christians do not even try to convert me. This might be taken as evidence that they don’t really mind if I spend eternity in Hell, but I prefer to think (and Baptists and Presbyterians have admitted it to me) that they are not all that certain about Hell and Heaven. I have often heard the remark (once from an American priest) that it is not so important what one believes; the important thing is how we treat each other. Of course, I applaud this sentiment, but imagine trying to explain “not important what one believes” to Luther or Calvin or St Paul. Remarks like this show a massive retreat of Christianity from the ground it once occupied, a retreat that can be attributed to no new revelation, but only to a loss of certitude.

            Much of the weakening of religious certitude in the Christian West can be laid at the door of science; even people whose religion might incline them to hostility to the pretensions of science generally understand that they have to rely on science rather than religion to get things done. But this has not happened to anything like the same extent in the world of Islam. One finds in Islamic countries not only religious opposition to specific scientific theories, as occasionally in the West, but a widespread religious hostility to science itself. My late friend, the distinguished Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, tried to convince the rulers of the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf to invest in scientific education and research, but he found that though they were enthusiastic about technology, they felt that pure science presented too great a challenge to faith. In 1981, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt called for an end to scientific education. In the areas of science I know best, though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West, for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading. This is despite the fact that in the ninth century, when science barely existed in Europe, the greatest centre of scientific research in the world was the House of Wisdom in Baghdad.

            Alas, Islam turned against science in the twelfth century. The most influential figure was the philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, who argued in The Incoherence of the Philosophers against the very idea of laws of nature, on the ground that any such laws would put God’s hands in chains. According to al-Ghazzali, a piece of cotton placed in a flame does not darken and smoulder because of the heat, but because God wants it to darken and smoulder. After al-Ghazzali, there was no more science worth mentioning in Islamic countries.

            The consequences are hideous. Whatever one thinks of the Muslims who blow themselves up in crowded cities in Europe or Israel or fly planes into buildings in the US, who could dispute that the certainty of their faith had something to do with it? George W. Bush and many others would have us believe that terrorism is a distortion of Islam, and that Islam is a religion of peace. Of course, it is good policy to say this, but statements about what “Islam is” make little sense. Islam, like all other religions, was created by people, and there are potentially as many different versions of Islam as there are people who profess to be Muslims. (The same remarks apply to Eagleton’s highly personal account of what Christianity “is”.) I don’t know on what ground one can say that a peaceable well-intentioned person like Abdus Salam was any more a true Muslim than the murderous holy warriors of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, the clerics throughout the world of Islam who incite hatred and violence, and those Muslims who demonstrate against supposed insults to their faith, but not against the atrocities committed in its name. (Incidentally, Abdus Salam regarded himself as a devout Muslim, but he belonged to a sect that most Muslims consider heretical, and for years was not allowed to return to Pakistan.) Dawkins treats Islam as just another deplorable religion, but there is a difference. The difference lies in the extent to which religious certitude lingers in the Islamic world, and in the harm it does. Richard Dawkins’s even-handedness is well-intentioned, but it is misplaced. I share his lack of respect for all religions, but in our times it is folly to disrespect them all equally.

    • kernunos said, on June 19, 2009 at 10:02 pm

      Ummmm, they were all nuts. the 88 year old was very anti Bush though.

  3. kernunos said, on June 19, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    “Likewise in the case of the recruiter. While some Muslims hate Americans and would be glad to kill one of us, most Muslims are not so inclined.”

    Well, no but it was only 19 hijackers, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They were not the majority either.


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