Saturday, November 28, 2015

Not So Lone Wolf: "No More Baby Parts"

Crime Scene

As the FBI warned months ago, a domestic anti-abortion terrorist appears to have struck - in the "playground for white, pro-gun, pro-life Evangelical Christians." The Washington Post is now reporting that an "unnamed law enforcement official" is telling them that the Planned Parenthood attack was "definitely politically motivated" and that the attacker "told the officers who arrested him 'no more baby parts' after being taken into custody" (and something about Obama).

The clinic had a safe room, bullet-proof vests, and a sophisticated video surveillance system that helped law enforcement track the terrorist's movements inside the building. Some anti-abortion groups were quick to denounce the attack, but the GOP presidential candidates have remained mostly silent thus far - suggesting either some recognition of their role as stochastic terrorists in this case or perhaps just concern about offending sympathetic primary voters?

Update: November 29 - some of the other GOP candidates finally weigh in....

"It’s obviously a tragedy. Nothing justifies this. Any protesters should always be peaceful. Whether it’s Black Lives Matter or pro-life protesters...This is so typical of the left to immediately begin demonizing a messenger because they don’t agree with the message...What I would say to anyone who would try to link this terrible tragedy to anyone who opposes abortion or the sale of body parts, is this is typical, left-wing tactics." - Carly Fiorina
"Well, this was an extremist. And this was a man who they said prior to this was mentally disturbed. So, he's a mentally disturbed person. There's no question about that...I will tell you, there is a tremendous group of people that think it's terrible, all of the videos that they've seen with some of these people from Planned Parenthood talking about it like you're selling parts to a car. I mean, there are a lot of people that are very unhappy about that." - Donald Trump
"Unfortunately, there's a lot of extremism coming from all areas. It's one of the biggest problems that I think is threatening to tear our country apart...We get into our separate corners and we hate each other, we want to destroy those with whom we disagree...If we can get rid of the rhetoric from either side and actually talk about the facts, I think that's when we begin to make progress. And, you know, a lot of people, when they don't have facts, when they don't have a good backup, that's when the rhetoric starts. That's when the name-calling starts." - Ben Carson
"Regardless of why he did it, what he did is domestic terrorism. What he is did is absolutely abominable, especially to those of us in the pro-life movement, because there's nothing about any of us that would condone or in any way look the other way at something like this." - Mike Huckabee

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Fanaticism Bubbling Up Around Us

"Where have we heard it before? ...[W]hen fanaticism is bubbling up around us - then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls. The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir."
 - Carl Sagan 
The last couple of weeks have indeed been very unsettling. As I write this Brussels and Tunisia remain on lockdown while French, American, and Russian bombs rain on Syria - and another MSF hospital - in response to the horrific and cowardly attacks by Daesh on random civilians in Paris. Turkish fighter jets have just shot down a Russian warplane at the Syrian border - "a stab in Russia’s back delivered by terrorist accomplices" (Putin). And NATO is urging calm as concern grows about a possible Russian response against Turkey - and therefore NATO.

Meanwhile, at home, Americans turned to Syrian refugees and Muslims in general (or people who "look Muslim") as means to assuage their fears - and stoke some others. Elected leaders and presidential candidates quickly called for an immediate halt to our already modest humanitarian contribution to the refugee crisis that we helped create (through our destabilization of Iraq), and some have even suggested that we screen refugees for Christianity. Others have suggested ID cards or a badge (possibly yellow?) that Muslims would be required to wear. As I've noted previously, our reactions to terrorism are often more terrorizing than the original act, and this case is certainly no exception to that rule. Terrorism is designed to cause terror and fear in a population, and it works because we let it do just that.

As happened after 9/11, there is much discussion again about the connection between Islam and terrorism. In my last post I acknowledged a "connection between some interpretations of the religion and bad or violent behavior" but took issue with Faisal Saeed Al Mutar's taxonomy of "Anti-Muslim Bigotry vs. Genuine Criticism of Islam" - which appears to be nothing more than another way to insult critics of the Sam Harris plan for dealing with jihadists (attack secular liberals as apologists for Islam). Harris is apparently still licking the wounds from his embarrassing email exchange with Noam Chomsky.

The extent to which Islam (or Christianity, or Buddhism) plays a role in terrorism is clearly not zero, but fundamentalism and fanaticism are not unique to Islam. Nor are the real or perceived injustices that also play a role in terrorism. Reality is seldom black and white. I suspect Christopher Hitchens, if he were still alive, would be absolutely livid over our failure thus far to render Bashar al-Assad and Hassan Rouhani to their opposition - as we did with Saddam. Perhaps after we release photos of their sons' dead bodies - a clear war crime in a more quaint era - the terrorists will finally understand that we really mean business? I'm not holding my breath. Nor will I be silent about the fanaticism that is bubbling up around us and consuming us. Evil will never be defeated through imitation.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Anti-Muslim Bigotry vs. Genuine Criticism of Islam Taxonomy Misfit

"I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."
 - Groucho Marx
I think this article could be one of the most important I have ever written on the relationship between Islam and terrorism. Why? It is because of the growing obscurantism that has made it almost impossible to have any discussion whatever about Islam without terms such as Islamophobe and Pseudo-Liberal Apologist
 being thrown around on the innertubes. I've never really fit into groups of any kind, and I think labels are often misleading (if sometimes also useful). So I'm not too surprised that I don't really fit neatly into any of the categories in Faisal Saeed Al Mutar's taxonomy of Anti-Muslim Bigotry vs. Genuine Criticism of Islam (Free Inquiry, vol 36 issue 1).

First, I'm nonviolent ("Muslim Conservative") and I believe in welcoming gays as equal citizens ("Muslim Moderate"). I accept that there is a link between radical interpretations of Islam and radical Islamic jihadi terrorism and advocate for liberal government and separation of religion and state (Muslim Reformer). But I'm also a non-Muslim white liberal ("Pseudo-Liberal Apologist") who thinks that there is a connection between some interpretations of the religion and bad or violent behavior, care about issues such as women’s rights and LGBT rights, and tend to differentiate between Islam as a set of ideas and interpretations and Muslims as people ("Genuine Critic of Islam").

In fact the "Pro-Christian Right Anti-Muslim Groups" and "Far-Right Jewish Groups" are the only categories in Faisal's taxonomy that I don't share at least one trait with, but if you added blasphemy rights advocate (at least with respect to blasphemy against Islam) then I could probably even agree with these groups on something! Also missing completely from Faisal's taxonomy is anyone who believes that American "policy choices have consequences" (9/11 Commission) and are also a factor in, but not necessarily the only "result or cause" of, radical Islamic jihadi terrorism. Or that the threat itself in this case is overblown in the U.S. relative even to the other terrorist risks that we currently face (not to mention the state-sponsored terrorism carried out in our name elsewhere in the world) and that our non-proportional overreactions make it worse. Also troubling, especially in light of recent news, is the fact that none of Faisal's groups seem to care about religious liberty or the very real threat of violence and discrimination against religious minorities (of which I include myself). So I want to associate myself with all these other groups as well. Sorry, but...


* I suspect that Glenn Greenwald, Reza Aslan, and Chris Stedman would call the Pseudo-Liberal Apologist category a "straw man" of their positions, but I'll let them deconstruct that aspect. Needless to say, I doubt this category will encourage the type of honest conversation that Faisal bemoans as missing from this debate - more likely it will just further polarize it.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Yonatan Zunger (Google+ Chief Architect) on Da'esh's attack on Paris

Updated: November 18 - added a few new links and another endnote (*) .

The chief architect for Google+ has posted a long but thoughtful* (and admittedly frustrated) piece about the Paris attacks by Da'esh (the organization formerly known as ISIS). He downplays the role of religion (and oil) as having "little to nothing to do with what we're seeing," which I think is an overstatement** if in some ways true in this case, but his online rant against the "Internet and the airwaves alike [being] filled with profound waves of self-serving nonsense and stupidity from left and right alike" is otherwise a pretty good overview of the complexity of this situation - and lack of simple solutions - in general. For additional recent and historical commentary on terrorism that I have found interesting, see this page.

* But it's still too early to say anything for sure on that Syrian refugee passport.

** John Horgan, Irish psychologist and terrorism expert, provides what I think is a more accurate and modest assessment of the role of religion in terrorism:
"Just like talking about 'terrorism,' it has become impossible to talk about the relationship between Islam and terrorism without causing great offense to some. Debate is so polarized now between those who say that we if we want to understand terrorism, Islam is 'everything,' and those who say that Islam is completely irrelevant. Both positions are incorrect. I certainly think the role of Islam, and religious ideology more generally, is vastly overstated as a mobilizing agent for involvement in political violence. I believe it is far more relevant in terms of sustaining commitment and continued engagement with a group. Islamic content is used both as a defense of activity as well as a justification for certain kinds of tactics. This is not unique to Islam, however, and I think any 'believer' can take great comfort from religious precepts especially if they are struggling to justify to themselves (as well as others) what they have now gotten themselves into. It’s the uncritical embracing of religious ideology that is often associated with terrorism. This is why I think converts appear especially susceptible to terrorist recruiters. They don’t have the deeper religious knowledge that could easily rebut many of the clichéd arguments used by recruiters attempting to inspire young Muslims to mobilize in the first place."
Finally, evolutionary anthropologist Scott Atran digs some into the real sources of inspiration:
"[W]hat inspires the most uncompromisingly lethal actors in the world today is not so much the Qur’an or religious teachings. It’s a thrilling cause that promises glory and esteem. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, glorious, cool – and persuasive." 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Paris: How NOT to Respond

Well, it didn't take long....

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

Beirut, Baghdad, Paris. No words right now. My updated reading list is here.

A photo posted by Joann Sfar (@joannsfar) on

Flag of France.svg
"Flag of France". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

#BenAndJesus: Biblical proof of Egyptian grain silos revealed

I agree that Ben Carson is getting a bum rap on the West Point and stabbing incident "debunkings," but his belief that the Biblical Joseph built the pyramids of Egypt to store grain seems genuine - and quite troubling, if not that unusual.
What we can conclude about Carson is that he is not systematically following a valid intellectual process in forming his beliefs. He has no problem dismissing the opinion of experts and scientists, and substituting his own poorly-informed hunches. Obviously this is a disturbing trait in someone running for high office.
 - Steven Novella 
Now The Guardian brings us a photo tour of his home with a painting of Ben and Jesus, by the Biblical Joseph I presume? After touring the grain silos? Or given the scrubs and terry cloth bathrobe, perhaps it was painted after a physical exam? Pretty creepy any way you look at it.

Ben Carson by Gage Skidmore 4.jpg
"Ben Carson by Gage Skidmore 4" by Gage Skidmore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Happy Albert Camus Day!

It's Albert Camus Day. If you've never read any Camus, I highly recommend The Myth of Sisyphus to wet your appetite. For short essays, a couple of my other personal favorites are Neither Victims Nor Executioners and Humanity's Last Chance. Or check out one of his books. No education in philosophy is complete without Camus.

For more about Camus, check out this recent episode of Philosophy Talk...

Albert Camus, gagnant de prix Nobel, portrait en buste, posé au bureau, faisant face à gauche, cigarette de tabagisme

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Sounds like Iredell County Commissioners are sticking with a "moment of silence" for now

My understanding is that the Iredell County Board of Commissioners stopped prayers on the advise of their attorney following the Rowan County decision, and that “concerned citizens” have recently been pressuring them to restart the practice. Some of these "concerned citizens" even said the Lord’s Prayer out loud during the moment of silence at their October 6 meeting. On November 3, something similar occurred.

It sounded like the Board was working with their attorney to explore their options and come up with a Greece-friendly policy that allows them to resume invocations, but from their October 20 minutes:

Bryan Shoemaker of 722 Dobson Farm Road, Statesville, addressed the Board and presented a petition with 484 signatures to reinstate prayer prior to the Iredell County Commissioners’ meeting. They met in front of the building prior to tonight’s meeting and will continue to pray for the Board. The group will not back down and will be standing behind the Board.

Chairman Mallory expressed his appreciation for the support of the community. The Board has revisited the issue and members have agreed to continue to open with a moment of silence for prayer or reflection.

Hopefully they will stick with their current policy...

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Unequally yoked? Check out the new podcast!

What happens when one person in a same-faith relationship leaves the faith? It can sometimes be devastating. But many couples are making it work. For some, it's not a major issue. For others, it requires some effort. For those in the latter camp, there's a great new podcast by a friend and former Mormon (now an agnostic and non-believer) and his wife (who still believes in the Mormon faith). They call it "Unequally Yoked" - a reference to the Biblical prohibition against Christians having relationships with "unbelievers" (2 Corinthians 6:14). Their latest episode is about boundaries and compromise. Check it out!

Sorry for the delay - here's episode 6!
Posted by Unequally Yoked Podcast on Monday, October 26, 2015

Dale McGowan also has some excellent advice (Update 11/4: and just posted some red flags to watch out for), as well as a book, on the topic. When I met my wife, she was nominally Lutheran but not a practicing one - meaning no church - which worked fine for me as I was already thoroughly post-Christian and very much into philosophical Taoism (reading every translation of the Tao Te Ching I could find and actively learning Wu style T'ai chi ch'uan and My Jhong Law Horn Kung Fu from a Sifu who studied under Master Lee Kwong Ming and who was also, ironically enough, a devout Catholic). I wrote our entire marriage ceremony, and it was mostly Taoist in tone and substance - but the Lutheran minister insisted on saying the Lord's Prayer at the end of the service.

My wife would probably consider herself an agnostic and a humanist today. I don't like labels, but atheist, skeptic, and secular humanist are mostly accurate. And while my wife and I have never been completely on the same page with everything, we've never really been that far apart either. So it hasn't been a major issue for us. If it is an issue for you, I highly recommend Unequally Yoked. And be sure to invite your spouse to listen with you. It could save your marriage!

Image Credit: The Morton Grove Voice