A Conversation Between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan
The following is an edited transcript of a 90-minute telephone conversation that took place on August 6, 2014. I hope readers find it useful.—SH
The following is an edited transcript of a 90-minute telephone conversation that took place on August 6, 2014. I hope readers find it useful.—SH
AUDIO TRANSCRIPT [Note: This is a verbatim transcript of a spoken podcast. However, I have added notes like this one to clarify controversial points.—SH]
I was going to do a podcast on a series of questions, but I got so many questions on the same topic that I think I’m just going to do a single response here, and we’ll do an #AskMeAnything podcast next time.
The question I’ve 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 that of the Palestinians?
Now, this is an incredibly boring and depressing question for a variety of reasons. The first, is that I have criticized both Israel and Judaism. What seems to have upset many people is that I’ve kept some sense of proportion. There are something like 15 million Jews on earth at this moment; there are a hundred times as many Muslims. I’ve debated rabbis who, when I have assumed that they believe in a God that can hear our prayers, they stop me mid-sentence and say, “Why would you think that 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 upon human behavior. And there are millions of Jews, literally millions among the few million who exist, for whom Judaism is very important, and yet they are atheists. They don’t believe in God at all. This is actually a position you can hold in Judaism, but it’s a total non sequitur in Islam or Christianity.
A young man enters a public place—a school, a shopping mall, an airport—carrying a small arsenal. He begins killing people at random. He has no demands, and no one is spared. Eventually, the police arrive, and after an excruciating delay as they marshal their forces, the young man is brought down.
This has happened many times, and it will happen again. After each of these crimes, we lose our innocence—but then innocence magically returns. In the aftermath of horror, grief, and disbelief, we seem to learn nothing of value. Indeed, many of us remain committed to denying the one thing of value that is there to be learned.
After the Boston Marathon bombing, a journalist asked me, “Why is it always angry young men who do these terrible things?” She then sought to connect the behavior of the Tsarnaev brothers with that of Jared Loughner, James Holmes, and Adam Lanza. Like many people, she believed that similar actions must have similar causes.
But there are many sources of human evil. And if we want to protect ourselves and our societies, we must understand this. To that end we should differentiate at least four types of violent actor.
(Photo by kevin dooley)
A few of the subjects I explore in my work have inspired an unusual amount of controversy. Some of this results from real differences of opinion or honest confusion, but much of it is due to the fact that certain of my detractors deliberately misrepresent my views. I have responded to the most consequential of these distortions here.
The latest wave of Muslim hysteria and violence has now spread to over twenty countries. The walls of our embassies and consulates have been breached, their precincts abandoned to triumphant mobs, and many people have been murdered—all in response to an unwatchable Internet video titled Innocence of Muslims. Whether over a film, a cartoon, a novel, a beauty pageant, or an inauspiciously named teddy bear, the coming eruption of pious rage is now as predictable as the dawn. This is already an old and boring story about old, boring, and deadly ideas. And I fear it will be with us for the rest of our lives.
(Photo by JD Hancock)
Bruce Schneier is a highly-respected expert on security who has written for The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, Forbes, Wired, Nature, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, and other major publications. His most recent book is Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive.
At the suggestion of many readers, I invited Bruce to set me straight about airline security on this page. The following is his response to my controversial article, “In Defense of Profiling.” Bruce and I will discuss these issues in greater depth in a subsequent post.—SH
(Photo by Slagheap)
I recently wrote a short essay about airline security (“In Defense of Profiling”) that provoked a ferocious backlash from readers. In publishing this piece, I’m afraid that I broke one of my cardinal rules of time (and sanity) management: Not everything worth saying is worth saying oneself. I learned this the hard way once before, in discussing the ethics of torture and collateral damage, but this time the backlash has been even more unpleasant and less rational.
(Photo by Basetrack )
I recently had a very enjoyable three-hour conversation with Joe Rogan on his podcast, where the topics ranged from jihad to probability theory to psychedelics. But I subsequently received a fair amount of abuse online for a few things I said about Islam and our adventures in the war on terror. For instance, I appear to have left many viewers with the impression that I believe we invaded Afghanistan for the purpose of rescuing its women from the Taliban. However, the points I was actually making were rather different: I think that abandoning these women to the Taliban is one of the things that make our inevitable retreat from Afghanistan ethically problematic. I also believe that wherever we can feasibly stop the abuse of women and girls, we should. An ability to do this in places like Afghanistan, and throughout the world, would be one of the benefits of having a global civil society and a genuine regime of international law. Needless to say, this is not the world we are living in (yet).
The ferocious response to my discussion with Rogan about the war on terror has, once again, caused me to worry about the future of liberalism. It is one thing to think that the war in Afghanistan has been an excruciating failure (which I believe), but it is another to think that we had no moral right to attack al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the first place. A significant percentage of liberals seem to hold the latter view, and consider President Obama to be nothing more than a neocon stooge and Islam to be an unfairly maligned religion of peace. I regularly hear from such people, and their beliefs genuinely trouble me. It doesn’t take many emails containing sentences like “The United States and Israel are the greatest terrorist states on earth” to make me feel that liberalism is simply doomed.
Steven Pinker is a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, the author of several magnificent books about the human mind, and one of the most influential scientists on earth. He is also my friend, an occasional mentor, and an advisor to my nonprofit foundation, Project Reason.
Steve’s new book is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Reviewing it for the New York Times Book Review, the philosopher Peter Singer called it “a supremely important book.” I have no doubt that it is, and I very much look forward to reading it. In the meantime, Steve was kind enough to help produce a written interview for this blog.
Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam rally to condemn the killing of Osama bin Laden in Quetta, Pakistan on Monday, May 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Arshad Butt)
President Obama has announced that the U.S. government will not release photos of Osama bin Laden’s corpse. I don’t know which fact is more alarming, that this appears to have been a very difficult decision or that the head of the CIA believes that these photos will leak in any case. Officially placating the conspiracy theorists of the Muslim world would have been fatuous in the extreme. Let them waste their lives chasing bin Laden’s ghost. But the idea that we cannot contain a few photos beggars belief. Which member of Seal Team 6 is going to put them on his Facebook page?
Of course, catering to the doubts of conspiracy theorists wouldn’t have been as craven as the pains we took to bury bin Laden in compliance with shariah law. Apologists for Islam insist that bin Laden was a terrible Muslim who represented no genuine strand of the faith. One wonders, therefore, who would have been offended if we had just kicked his corpse into the sea without a word. Indeed, one might wonder why our government wasn’t afraid to grant this ghoulish man full Muslim honors. Shouldn’t this have offended the true adherents of so peaceful and tolerant a religion?
In any case, it is time we ignored the fathomless depths of Muslim “sensitivity” on such matters. Anyone provoked by our denying bin Laden his last rites would have thereby declared himself an enemy of civilization. Why not allow such people to step forward so that they can be photographed (as above)?
And we should not let the hopefulness of this moment go to our heads. Thomas Friedman has grown so manic as to imagine that bin Laden was never very popular among Muslims in the first place:
Very few Arabs actively supported Bin Laden, but he initially drew significant passive support for his fist in the face of America, the Arab regimes and Israel. But as Al Qaeda was put on the run, and spent most of its energies killing other Muslims who didn’t toe its line, even its passive support melted away (except for the demented leadership of Hamas).
Here, Friedman has taken flight on the fairy wings of false nuance. Support for bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the practice of suicide bombing—passive or otherwise—was shockingly high in almost every Muslim community where one could safely conduct a poll in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001. Yes, these terrifying sentiments are on the wane in most places. How could they not be? As Friedman points out, Al Qaeda has done little more than slaughter innocent Muslims in the meantime. But current levels of admiration for bin Laden are still appalling. Let’s hope the downward trend continues and that someday a mere 10 percent of Muslims support global jihad. Today, this would equate to 150 million people. Winning the war of ideas to this degree would represent extraordinary progress. But the existence of 150 million friends of bin Laden, spread over scores of countries, would still be no small problem for the rest of us.
(Photo by DOH4)
I have long maintained a page on my website where I address various distortions, misunderstandings, and criticisms of my work. I take it to be either a sign of carelessness or masochism on my part that this page is the #1 Google search result for the phrase “response to controversy.” Surely, I need not have courted quite so much controversy. But there it is.
While most of my work has been devoted to controversial topics, I have taken very few positions that I later regret. There is one, however, and I regret it more with each passing hour: it is my “collateral damage argument” for the use of torture in extreme circumstances. This argument first appeared in The End of Faith (pp. 192-199), in a section where I compare the ethics of “collateral damage” to the ethics of torture in times of war. I argued then, and I believe today, that collateral damage is worse than torture across the board.
However, rather than appreciate just how bad I think collateral damage is in ethical terms, many readers mistakenly conclude that I take a cavalier attitude toward the practice of torture. I do not. Nevertheless, I believe that there are extreme situations in which practices like “water-boarding” may not only be ethically justifiable, but ethically necessary—especially where getting information from a known terrorist seems likely to save the lives of thousands (or even millions) of innocent people. To argue that torture may sometimes be ethically justified is not to argue that it should ever be legal (crimes like trespassing or theft may sometimes be ethical, while we all have an interest in keeping them illegal).
I sincerely regret making this argument. Rational discussion about the ethics of torture has proved impossible in almost every case, and my published views have been the gift to my critics and detractors that just keeps on giving: It seems that every few weeks, someone discovers the relevant pages in The End of Faith, or notices what others have said about them, and publicly attacks me for being “pro-torture.” Journalists regularly steer interviews on any subject in this direction—not so that they can understand my position, or coherently argue against it, but so that readers can be shocked by whatever misleading gloss appears in their final copy. The spectacle of someone not being reflexively and categorically “against torture” seems just too good to pass up.
And so, I am now a bit wiser and can offer a piece of advice to others: not everything worth saying is worth saying oneself. I am sure that the world needs someone to think out loud about the ethics of torture, and to point out the discrepancies in how we weight various harms for which we hold one another morally culpable, but that someone did not need to be me. The subject has done nothing but distract and sicken readers who might have otherwise found my work useful.
The prognosis on the war in Afghanistan seems increasingly dismal. In his review of Bing West’s new book, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan, (which I have not yet read), Dexter Filkins discusses the challenges posed by Afghan culture and religion:
Time after time, West shows the theory of counterinsurgency scraping up against the hard and jagged ground of the real Afghanistan. In one instance, he examines the work of a group of American soldiers and civilians, known as a provincial reconstruction team, whose job was to provide development assistance to Afghan locals in Asadabad (A-Bad to the Americans) in eastern Afghanistan. It was overseen by a battalion known as the 1-32 and commanded by a lieutenant colonel named Mark O’Donnell. In June 2009, after the reconstruction team had been working there for three years, an American supply truck blew a tire on the main road. A crowd of Afghans gathered, and then suddenly a grenade exploded, killing and maiming several Afghans. A riot ensued. “Kill the Americans!” the Afghans shouted. “Protect Islam!” Only later did a videotape of the incident show clearly that an Afghan had tossed the grenade.
About this, West writes:
“For three years, the provincial reconstruction team had lived in a compound a few blocks from the scene of the tragedy. The P.R.T. had paid over $10 million to hire locals, who smiled in appreciation. Every time a platoon from 1-32 patrolled through town, they stopped to chat with storekeepers and to buy trinkets and candy to give to the street urchins. Yet the locals had turned on the soldiers in an instant. That the townspeople in A-Bad who profited from American protection and projects would believe the worst of O’Donnell’s soldiers — whom they knew personally — suggested that the Americans were tolerated but not supported, regardless of their good works and money.”
Is Afghanistan a lost cause?