Monday, October 18, 2010

More Intrigue in Iran

On top of a cyber attack on Iran's nuclear weapons development program by the mysterious Stuxnet worm, now comes word of an explosion of unknown provenience at a launch site for missiles targeted on Israel and American forces in Iraq. The report is at debkafile which has not always been accurate in the past, but if it's correct this time it suggests that someone has decided that the best way to stop the Iranians is by covertly taking out their ability to threaten Western troops and assets.

Here's debkafile's lede:
A top-secret Iranian military installation was struck by a triple blast Tues. Oct. 12 the day before Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Lebanon. debkafile's military and intelligence sources report the site held most of the Shehab-3 medium-range missile launchers Iran had stocked for striking US forces in Iraq and Israel in the event of war - some set to deliver triple warheads (tri-conic nosecones). The 18 soldiers officially reported killed in the blasts and 14 injured belonged to the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) main missile arm, the Al-Hadid Brigades.
The Imam Ali Base where the explosion occurred is situated .... 400 kilometers from Baghdad and primary American bases in central Iraq and 1,250 kilometers from Tel Aviv and central Israel. Both are well within the Shehab-3 missile's 1,800-2,500-kilometer operational range.
Iran is saying that the blasts were the result of an accidental fire at the base and did not result from a deliberate attack.

Well, maybe.

Moral Clarity and Missing the Point

Perhaps no descent into the valley of death in the last couple of decades has been as remarked upon as has that of Christopher Hitchens, the notoriously brilliant atheist and journalist. Michael Gerson makes his contribution to the ouvre in a column that can be read here.

Hitchens, the author of an attack on Mother Teresa, of all people, and of a book titled God is Not Great, is dying from esophygeal cancer, and one of the remarkable things about his experience, which he seems to be handling with considerable grace and dignity, is the outpouring of love and prayers he has received from members of the very faith tradition he despises.

Gerson's column addresses Hitchens the moralist, and in it he says this:
But Christopher Hitchens is weaker on the personal and ethical challenge presented by atheism: Of course we can be good without God, but why the hell bother? If there are no moral lines except the ones we draw ourselves, why not draw and redraw them in places most favorable to our interests? Hitchens parries these concerns instead of answering them: Since all moral rules have exceptions and complications, he said, all moral choices are relative.
The best answer that Christopher Hitchens can offer to this ethical objection is himself. He is a sort of living refutation -- an atheist who is also a moralist. His politics are defined by a hatred of bullies, whether Kim Jong Il, Saddam Hussein or the mullahs in Iran. His affections are reserved for underdogs, from the Kurds to Salman Rushdie. The dreams of totalitarians are his nightmares -- what W.H. Auden described as: "A million eyes, a million boots in line / Without expression, waiting for a sign." Even Hitchens' opposition to God seems less of a theological argument than a revolt against celestial tyranny.
All this is true about Hitchens, but I think Gerson somewhat misses the real issue. He's saying that Hitchens is moral even without having a belief in God, but what he means is that Hitchens holds the same values that theists would describe as Good. This, however, is to assert what no one denies. No one questions whether atheists can hold the same values as theists. The point is that, if atheism is true, whatever values they hold are totally arbitrary and subjective and neither good nor bad. If someone holds the opposite values as does Hitchens then those, too, on atheism, would be neither good nor bad. They would just be alternative principles one could live by if one wished. Unless there is a transcendent moral authority who is Itself the source of all Good then there simply is no such thing as moral "right" or "goodness."

David Hart has an excellent column on this topic at First Things which I highly recommend to those interested in trying to understand why this is so.

We can be glad that Hitchens, for whatever reason, agrees with us that bullies are bad, but it is simply false to say, as Gerson does, that this is somehow a refutation of the claim that God is necessary for there to be moral good. This is important because it follows that atheists like Hitchens have no grounds for condemning those things he despises. His denunciations of them are no more than expressions of personal bias. To say that someone is evil, if atheism is true, is to say only that we don't like that person's behavior, just like we don't care for the idea of eating dog food. Nothing more.