Having read many hundreds of responses to my recent article on guns, and hundreds more to an earlier post on self-defense, I now realize that there are differences in temperament across which it may be impossible to communicate about the reality of human violence. Many people simply do not want to think about this topic in any detail. I concede that, given the relative safety in which most of us live, this can be a reasonable attitude to adopt. Most people will do just fine walking the streets of London, Paris, or even New York, oblivious to the possibility that they could be physically attacked. Happily, the odds of avoiding violence are in our favor.
Those readers who were appalled by my article on guns seem to recoil at the suggestion that one might want to prepare for an unlikely encounter with evil. What is the best way to respond to a knife attack? How do home invasions actually occur?—such questions can seem the product of an unhealthy imagination. There are people who consider using a burglar alarm at night or even locking their doors to be debasing concessions to fear. I have heard from many people in the U.K. who claim to be greatly relieved that their police do not carry firearms. Encountering my lengthy ruminations on violence and self-defense, these readers have begun to worry about my sanity.
Fantasists and zealots can be found on both sides of the debate over guns in America. On the one hand, many gun-rights advocates reject even the most sensible restrictions on the sale of weapons to the public. On the other, proponents of stricter gun laws often seem unable to understand why a good person would ever want ready access to a loaded firearm. Between these two extremes we must find grounds for a rational discussion about the problem of gun violence.
Unlike most Americans, I stand on both sides of this debate. I understand the apprehension that many people feel toward “gun culture,” and I share their outrage over the political influence of the National Rifle Association. How is it that we live in a society in which one of the most compelling interests is gun ownership? Where is the science lobby? The safe food lobby? Where is the get-the-Chinese-lead-paint-out-of-our-kids’-toys lobby? When viewed from any other civilized society on earth, the primacy of guns in American life seems to be a symptom of collective psychosis.
Most of my friends do not own guns and never will. When asked to consider the possibility of keeping firearms for protection, they worry that the mere presence of them in their homes would put themselves and their families in danger. Can’t a gun go off by accident? Wouldn’t it be more likely to be used against them in an altercation with a criminal? I am surrounded by otherwise intelligent people who imagine that the ability to dial 911 is all the protection against violence a sane person ever needs.
After writing an article on the principles of self-defense, I was inundated with emails and Internet comments—many of which came from experts in the field. The response was very supportive, and I haven’t found anything of substance to amend in my original essay. However, I did take one criticism to heart: I don’t know enough about Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ).
I am now doing my best to rectify that problem. What follows is the first installment of what (I hope) will be an ongoing journal of my progress in BJJ. I suspect that many readers of this blog have no interest in the martial arts and will consider this an unfortunate departure from my main areas of competence. I am convinced, however, that training in BJJ offers a powerful lens through which to examine some primary human concerns—truth v. delusion, self knowledge, ethics, and overcoming fear. I hope some of you bear with me.
As a teenager, I once had an opportunity to fly in a police helicopter over a major American city. Naively, I thought the experience might be uneventful. Perhaps there would be no crime between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night. However, from the moment we were airborne, there was a fresh emergency every fifteen seconds: Shots fired… rape in progress… victim stabbed…It was a deluge. Of course, the impression this left on me was, in part, the result of a sampling bias: I was hearing nothing but incident reports from a city of 4 million people, most of whom would never encounter violence directly. (No one calls the police to say “Everything is still okay!”) Yet it was uncanny to discover the chaos that lurked at the margins of my daily routine. A few minutes from where I might otherwise have been eating dinner, rapes, robberies, and murders were in progress..
I confess that, as a critic of religion, I have paid too little attention to the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Frankly, it always felt unsportsmanlike to shoot so large and languorous a fish in so tiny a barrel. This scandal was one of the most spectacular “own goals” in the history of religion, and there seemed to be no need to deride faith at its most vulnerable and self-abased. Even in retrospect, it is easy to understand the impulse to avert one’s eyes: Just imagine a pious mother and father sending their beloved child to the Church of a Thousand Hands for spiritual instruction, only to have him raped and terrified into silence by threats of hell. And then imagine this occurring to tens of thousands of children in our own time—and to children beyond reckoning for over a thousand years. The spectacle of faith so utterly misplaced, and so fully betrayed, is simply too depressing to think about.
NOTE: Please see my most recent thoughts on this and other controversial subjects here: Response to Controversy.—SH
Imagine that a known terrorist has planted a bomb in the heart of a nearby city. He now sits in your custody. Rather than conceal his guilt, he gloats about the forthcoming explosion and the magnitude of human suffering it will cause. Given this state of affairs—in particular, given that there is still time to prevent an imminent atrocity—it seems that subjecting this unpleasant fellow to torture may be justifiable. For those who make it their business to debate the ethics of torture this is known as the “ticking-bomb” case.
While the most realistic version of the ticking bomb case may not persuade everyone that torture is ethically acceptable, adding further embellishments seems to awaken the Grand Inquisitor in most of us. If a conventional explosion doesn’t move you, consider a nuclear bomb hidden in midtown Manhattan. If bombs seem too impersonal an evil, picture your seven-year-old daughter being slowly asphyxiated in a warehouse just five minutes away, while the man in your custody holds the keys to her release. If your daughter won’t tip the scales, then add the daughters of every couple for a thousand miles—millions of little girls have, by some perverse negligence on the part of our government, come under the control of an evil genius who now sits before you in shackles. Clearly, the consequences of one person’s uncooperativeness can be made so grave, and his malevolence and culpability so transparent, as to stir even a self-hating moral relativist from his dogmatic slumbers.
In my last post, I argued that there is a direct link between Islam and suicide bombing. Many readers of this blog considered this post to be offensive, tendentious, and even irresponsible. An addendum seems to be in order. Criticism of my argument fell into a few broad categories:
1. Sam, you don’t know a damn thing about Islam, the Koran, or Muslim history. Islam is a religion of peace that has been hijacked by extremists.
This objection is generally put forward by people who have not read the Koran or the hadith (the literature that recounts the sayings and actions of the Prophet). Some readers also pointed out that the bible contains some very scary passages. This is true, and I discuss the consequences of biblical literalism in my other writing. But the bible is a vast, self-contradictory book. It is very easy to just read the “good parts” and ignore all the barbarism found in books like Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Exodus, etc. The fundamental message of the Koran is impossible to ignore and far easier to summarize. And there is no Sermon on the Mount in there to break the spell. Yes, there is a single line that can be read as a prohibition against suicide (4:29 – “Do not destroy yourselves.”), but this line can also be read as an admonishment to Muslims to refrain from killing other Muslims. In any case, we are talking about one line set in a wilderness of other passages that clearly admonish the faithful to despise unbelievers. On virtually every page of the Koran we are informed that Allah is in the process of “mocking,” “cursing,” “shaming,” “scourging,” “not forgiving,” “not reprieving,” the infidels. Had Allah wanted to guide the infidels to the true path, he would have. So he has cursed them with their doubts. He allows them to prosper in this world only so that they may have a greater opportunity to heap sin upon sin and more richly deserve the eternal punishment of the fire whose “fuel is men and stones.” As a basis for religious tolerance in a pluralistic world, the Koran is one of the least promising documents ever written—despite the few lines that, read in isolation, seem to counsel patience, charity, tolerance, etc. And the hadith is even worse.
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