Monday, November 29, 2010

Another Mass Murder Attempt

By now you've heard of the Somali teenager arrested in Portland for attempting to detonate a massive car bomb at a gathering of thousands of Oregonians attending a Christmas tree lighting service. Go here for a video of what the crowd looks like at that annual ceremony. Here's a rather chilling excerpt from the accompanying story:
The Somali-born university student met with an undercover FBI agent in August at a Portland hotel and told him he had found the perfect location for a terrorist attack: the city’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

Mohamed Osman Mohamud told the agent that he had dreamed of carrying out an attack for years, and the city’s Pioneer Courthouse Square would be packed with thousands, “a huge mass that will … be attacked in their own element with their families celebrating the holidays,” according to an affidavit.

On Friday, Mohamud parked what he thought was a bomb-laden van near the ceremony and then went to a nearby train station, where he dialed a cell phone that he believed would detonate the vehicle. Instead, federal authorities moved in and arrested him. No one was hurt.
We can be very thankful that our intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have been so vigilant throughout the past nine years, but as has been frequently said, the FBI needs to be lucky every time, the terrorists need be lucky only once.

Let's do a little theorizing and ask this question: Suppose this Somali Muslim had been successful and had killed and maimed hundreds if not thousands of men, women, and children celebrating the advent of the Christmas season. What do you suppose would have been the reaction to this atrocity, not just by the government but by the American people? I invite your thoughts. You can use the Contact Us feature, and I'll post your responses in a few days.

Circular Firing Squad

It appears that internecine warfare has broken out among secular humanists who disagree on the proper approach to religious folk. Some, like the founder of a couple of major humanist organizations, Paul Kurtz, want to engage religious people in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Others, like Ron Lindsey and biologist P.Z. Myers, want the conflict between believers and unbelievers to be conducted more along the lines of open warfare. Kurtz has lost the debate and has been relieved of his duties as Chairman of the Center for Inquiry, an organization he founded and chaired for decades.

It was a sharp slap in the face to Kurtz, and it apparently made for a lively conference attended by 300 of the unfaithful in Los Angeles recently.

The L.A. Times has the details:
Such a debate "would have been incomprehensible 10 years ago," said Tom Flynn, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, which held its 30th anniversary meeting at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. But the 9/11 attacks and a growing interest in atheism have emboldened the in-your-face wing of the movement and led to internal debate and dissension.

That rift cracked open recently when Paul Kurtz, a founder of the secular humanist movement in America, was ousted as chairman of the Center for Inquiry, a sibling organization to the Council for Secular Humanism. One factor leading to his ouster was a perception that Kurtz was "on the mellower end of the spectrum," Flynn said.

The tension was evident at the Biltmore, where about 300 nonbelievers from across the United States and Canada gathered for three days of lively and, at times, gleefully blasphemous debate. ("I have a personal commitment to committing blasphemy every day," biologist P.Z. Myers said.)

With that background, and with the legacy of 9/11 providing impetus to those who see religious fundamentalism as a threat, there was a sense of urgency at the Biltmore conference about finding the right approach. Should nonbelievers confront the religious or try to get along?

Even "accommodationist" atheists are not known for mincing words, and although there were periodic reminders that those at the gathering shared "99% of our intellectual DNA," as author Chris Mooney put it, the disagreements were not exactly gentle.

When Mooney, a leading voice for accommodation, said there was nothing to stop a nonreligious person from being spiritual, Myers' reaction was nearly physical. "Whenever we start talking about spirituality," he said, "I just want to puke."
Well, puking is one possible response, I suppose, when one is an intellectual bereft of intellectual arguments. At least it absolves one, temporarily, of the duty to respond to an intellectual challenge with a coherent reply. God bless him and let's hope he's seated in front of a bucket.

Rocks in the River

My friend Jason recommended that I read an essay by Jonah Goldberg at NRO on the Pope's views on condom use that received so much attention a couple of weeks ago. Jason noted that the essay is about that topic, of course, but about much more as well. He's right, and I, in turn, commend Goldberg's essay to you. Here's a glimpse:
In the spring of 2005, Pope John Paul II died. My father, who passed away that summer, watched the funeral and the inauguration of the current pope, Benedict XVI, from his hospital bed. My dad, a Jew, loved the spectacle of it all. (The Vatican, he said, was the last institution that “really knows how to dress.”)

From what he could tell, he liked this new pope too. “We need more rocks in the river,” my dad explained. What he meant was that change comes so fast, in such a relentless torrent, that we need people and things that stand up to it and offer respite from the current.
Further along Goldberg raises, no doubt unintentionally, an interesting ethical-theological question. Here's the salient passage:
What Benedict said in a book-length interview is that in certain circumstances using a condom would be less bad than not using one. To use Benedict’s example, a male prostitute with HIV would be acting more responsibly, more morally, if he wore a condom while plying his trade than if he didn’t.

The pontiff understands that not all harms are equal. Assault is wrong, for instance, but assault with a deadly weapon is more wrong than assault with a non-deadly one.
I think the Pope is correct that all harms are not equal, but this is by no means a universal view among protestant theologians. It's sometimes asserted, by those who devote themselves to such matters, that all harms, or sins, are equal, that no sin is less wrong or more wrong than any other. I think this is a mistake. if we take sin to be that which harms oneself or another then I think the view that all sins are equal is simply false. Murdering someone and wishing to murder someone are both harms, but one is much more harmful, and thus more sinful, than the other. It is much worse to lie in the witness stand and send someone to jail unjustly than to lie to one's wife about how nice a dress looks on her.

All men are sinners, but some men are worse sinners than others. Mother Teresa was a sinner but her sins were far less evil than those of Adolf Hitler.

Anyway, I love the metaphor of rocks in the river. If there are enough rocks perhaps the river of a depauperate culture that threatens to wash away everything good in its path can be dammed and stanched. Every rock helps.