The Rationalist’s Defence of Injustice

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1aGandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilisation, supposedly replied that he thought it might be a good idea. Taken at face value, we can presume that he was both contemptuous and cynical of the idea of civilisation of any kind existing in the West. Being on the receiving end of Western civilisational endeavours such as the one he experienced in India during his life, he would have been well aware of hollowness of the idea that actions and ideas emanating from the West were inherently virtuous. Indeed, very few people, especially in Ireland, need to be reminded of the great altruism with which the British Empire undertook the task of civilising the world. Although Great Britain is no longer the empire it once was, it continues to play the civilising game along with its master, the United States. Meanwhile, the notion that great powers undertake certain actions for the benefit of the “uncivilised” of the world continues to hold sway, along with the concomitant idea that such actions are inherently virtuous. They are inherently virtuous simply because said actions are being carried out by the U.S. and its allies. Nothing more needs to be said in their defence according to the reigning orthodoxy. Said orthodoxy resides not only in and around the centres of power, and not only emerges from the mouths of the most devoted nationalists and neoconservatives but can also be found in those who are considered to be sceptics and rationalists.

Two of the most vocal types of this are Sam Harris and his former colleague, Christopher Hitchens. Both men had become two of the four faces most associated with rationalism, specifically atheism, and the so-called New Atheism, that emerged more or less immediately in the aftermath of 9/11. In the case of Hitchens, advocating for a non-religious world due to the fact that he deemed religion a threat to humanity became one part of his public persona. The other part was as a cheerleader for the neoconservative movement. Counting amongst his friends Paul Wolfowitz, the former U.S. Deputy Director of Defence in the Bush II administration, Hitchens could be relied upon to decry the evils of religion in the same breath as declaring British and U.S. intentions in the Middle East as righteous. His views did not in any way evolve before his death in 2012 from oesophageal cancer. One year before his death, when asked if he thought the invasion of Iraq along with the subsequent chaos it unleashed was worth the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein, he responded in the positive; the fracturing and destruction of a country, from which it may never recover, was deemed a price worth paying for the regional interests of his acquaintances in the White House.

Although claiming to take a more nuanced view of things, Harris is arguably worse than Hitchens in his support for the British and U.S. interests around the word. Although Hitchens was outlandishly crude in some of his pronunciations, Harris on the other hand relies on the veneer of calm and respectable discourse in order to promote views that are far from respectable. Harris’ position is essentially that Islam in particular represents an existential and ongoing threat to superior Western civilisation and ideals. Therefore, it must be dealt with accordingly by those who have the power to do so. Being unmentionable is that it just happens that the balance of power resides by far in the hands of the U.S. and its closest allies, yet the threat apparently remains. This is half of the premise of Harris’ main point of contention with Noam Chomsky, the other half being that that our intentions are good regardless of the outcomes. In this view, because collateral damage is not intentional on the part of leaders, what we do that causes civilian deaths in the first place is therefore not judged by the supposedly unexpected outcome of collateral damage. The act is judged simply by its intentions. If the intention was to destroy a terrorist training camp via a Hellfire missile, and civilians were accidentally killed in the process, the civilians do not enter into any moral calculation. The initial act was carried out for the correct reasons, at least according to those in power and their supporters, therefore the unintentional deaths of civilians do not enter into any moral calculation of the hypothetical missile strike.

This is Harris’ stance on the nature of U.S. foreign policy, at least as he laid it out in recent correspondence with Chomsky, arguing that the U.S. is “in many respects, just… a ‘well-intentioned giant.’” The Clinton Administration’s bombing in 1998 of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, which resulted in the destruction of roughly half of the country’s medicines, including its entire supply of anti-malaria drugs, was a legitimate act according to Harris. The apparent intention, which Harris takes for granted, was to destroy a chemical weapons factory, with the resulting suffering unleashed on the country being of no concern. What matters are intentions, nothing else. Harris simply takes it for granted that what we do is right and proper simply by virtue of the fact that it is being done by us. Harris presumes, with no evidence, that “Clinton (as I imagine him to be) did not want or intend to kill anyone at all, necessarily.” The more likely reason, which Harris fails to mention or perhaps even realise, is that the plant’s destruction was in retaliation for the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania two weeks earlier. Although a terrorist attack on civilians in the Middle East or somewhere in the West may have the same outcome as the al-Shifa bombing and other similar acts by Western states, the two cases cannot be compared according to Harris conception of intentions. By logically extending his notion of intentionality, our crimes are not really crimes, and deaths caused by us are not really caused by us, a logic that would impress the most committed totalitarian ideologue.

As mentioned, an attitude such as this is nothing remotely new, and Harris’ position is also not new in this regard. In the aftermath of the 2006 war in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah, he argued that those on the left “ignore the fact that Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so”; naturally, with no evidence provide for such a claim. Even more, he argued, “Muslims intentionally murder noncombatants, while we and the Israelis (as a rule) seek to avoid doing so. Muslims routinely use human shields, and this accounts for much of the collateral damage we and the Israelis cause”; a case, more or less, of “Look at what they make us do to them.” Harris concluded that, “Given these distinctions, there is no question that the Israelis now hold the moral high ground in their conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah.”

What he chose to ignore, and still chooses to ignore, is the well documented fact that the Israeli Defence Forces (I.D.F.) routinely targeted and continues to target civilians, along with using human shields. Such information is not new and can be found from the usual sources. One just has to look. Human Rights Watch (H.R.W.) is one of those sources. As they pointed out in their report on the use by Israel of cluster munitions in the 2006 Lebanon War, “Israel fired 90 percent of its cluster munitions during the last 72 hours, after the UN Security Council had passed Resolution 1701 calling for a ceasefire on August 11, but before the ceasefire took effect at 8 a.m. on August 14.” The submunitions produced, roughly four million according to H.R.W., “posed a high likelihood of indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, particularly when so many of the submunitions hit built-up areas”. In Harris’ view, this is a perfectly acceptable tactic, Western, and in this case Israeli, intentions being what they obviously are: noble, righteous, and always in self-defence.

Defenders of the violence of empire will always find new ways to argue their case. The founding myth of the U.S. — its Manifest Destiny  — is one such argument that has been used for centuries now for just this reason. A rationalistic defence of injustice is Harris’ contribution to this continuing mythos of Western civilisation and justice. That Western intentions may be less than noble cannot be entertained. To think so would be to undermine the narrative that we are right and they are wrong. That they happen to be by far on the receiving end of obscene violence and malevolence is of no concern. After all, we intend to do good.