Sunday, July 31, 2011

Chris Hedges and Sam Harris on Nuclear War

I stumbled on the dispute between Chris Hedges and Sam Harris today over whether or not Harris has "called ... for a nuclear first strike against the Islamic world" in the name of atheism. Since I had just begun to like Hedges (for reasons including, but not limited to, his response to the new atheism), I was, at first, saddened to see him make such a polarising move in a debate. But looking at it more closely, I'm not so sure that he does more than hold Harris responsible for the implications of his views, assurances to the contrary notwithstanding.

I'll begin by disagreeing with Harris when he says that "Wherever they appear, Hedges’ comments seem calculated to leave the impression that I want the U.S. government to start killing Muslims by the millions." In fact, in one instance, Hedges quotes extensively enough from Harris to leave the impression that Harris only believes that the killing of millions of Muslims would be necessary in a very special circumstance.

But I think Harris wants us to reject that reading too. Now, the question is whether Hedges was right to say that this is what Harris's argument implies. If Hedges is right, then Harris could of course revise his views, granting the rightness of Hedges's position. (The underlying presumption here is that if Harris's argument is tantamount to arguing in favour of a nuclear first strike, then there is something wrong with it. Harris presumably agrees on that general point.) If Harris is right, however, then Hedges has intentionally distorted Harris's views and is guilty of intellectual dishonesty. It was that last point that saddened me, given my sympathies with so much of what Hedges says. But tonight, having looked more closely at it, I'm inclined to say Hedges is in the right on this one.

Harris's rebuttal consists of a long quotation of the "only passage [he has] ever written on the subject of preventative nuclear war and the only passage that Hedges could be referring to" followed by a terse, if conventional, challenge: "I will let the reader judge whether this award-winning journalist has represented my views fairly." That's the challenge I'm going to take up. Here's the relevant passage:

It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. How would such an unconscionable act of self-defense be perceived by the rest of the Muslim world? It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own. All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns. That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen. Indeed, given the immunity to all reasonable intrusions that faith enjoys in our discourse, a catastrophe of this sort seems increasingly likely. We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry. The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it. Given the steady proliferation of technology, it is safe to say that time is not on our side.

Before leaving it up to the reader, I should remark, Harris does highlight certain aspects of the text to emphasize that he meant this only as a possibility (he emphasizes two "may be"s, for example) and that it applies only under particular circumstances (where an Islamist country aquires nuclear weapons, which has not yet happened). Also, he emphasizes the parts that grant Hedges's interpretation that such an an attack would be an "unconscionable act" and an "unthinkable crime". This would be very embarrassing for Hedges, I would say, if he hadn't quoted those caveats as part of his reading of Harris; but Hedges did actually quote him at such length when he levied his charge. The question now, then, is whether those phrases get Harris off the hook.

I don't think it does. Keep in mind that Hedges is arguing that Harris's atheism is "dangerous". What he claims to have found here is a passage in which atheism's view of religion can be used to justify a nuclear attack. And isn't that exactly what we have here? After all, it is Harris who argues that Islamists (unlike communists) because they get all "dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise", can't be trusted to use their nukes merely as a deterent. From there (and it is Harris who takes us there) it is a short road to wiping out (by nuclear first strike) an entire country that has both long-range nuclear capability and an Islamist regime.

But does Harris actually recommend such an attack? Does he, as it were, articulate the threat of first strike by the U.S. in the case of Iran developing long-range nuclear weapons. I really think he does. While he says it would be unconscionable and unthinkable (morally and intellectually beyond the pale, we might say) he describes it as, nonetheless, necessary: "In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own." Now, I'm not sure that we are entitled to do anything at all to "ensure our survival", but it is reasonable to assume that if someone explains themselves by saying "it was the only thing I could do in order to ensure my survival" that they are, not just describing a "horrible absurdity", but defending their actions. They are appealing to the hopelessness of the situation as a justification for an act of desperation.

Harris claims that for Muslims to interpret this as a "genocidal crusade" would be a misperception on their part, stemming, it seems, from their erroneous religious beliefs. "All of this is perfectly insane, of course," Harris admits: "I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns." What Hedges is saying, and I think rightly, is that the scenario described by Harris depends much less on the religious views of the Islamists than the religious views of the atheists. It is the image of the dewy-eyed longing for paradise that justifies the first-strike. I think Harris has only succeeded in describing a plausible scenario in which an atheist might launch a first strike against a theocracy. A president armed with ordinary Christian faith would have sufficient understanding of the faith of his adversary to find the scenario sufficiently implausible to keep that option off the table.

That is: the first strike is motivated not by "religious ideas" but by the atheist's understanding of religious ideas. And, in that light, atheism is actually quite dangerous, perhaps even, as Hedges is arguing, more dangerous than fundamentalism.

Hedges is of course guilty of caricaturing Harris's ideas for effect. But that's what debate is all about. I don't think he is guilty of intellectual dishonesty. Harris has used atheism to explain the necessity of a nuclear first-strike on, specifically, the Muslim world. He is afraid neither of the U.S. bomb nor the Israeli bomb. If his atheism is right, then such a first-strike becomes "plausible", no matter how horribly absurd it might seem. To people of faith, I think, the first-strike option remains simply unthinkable. It doesn't come up. You don't even take it up for consideration as a possible response to an Islamist regime armed with nuclear missiles. Harris appears to be scared enough of Muslims to seriously consider the possibility killing them all in order to ensure his own survival. (He wouldn't like to have to do it, you understand; but it may one day become necessary because, you know, that's the way "they" are.) His fear is built, not on a lack of faith, but on a lack of understanding of people of faith. It is, quite explicitly, based on atheism.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this article, which is exactly the type of contribution one citizenry needs. I came across it after reading Harris' "Dear Angry Lunatic" piece against Hedges. I suspected he was misrepresenting Hedges' characterization of his views, and this does indeed seem to be the case.

What's really disturbing is that in this passage Harris is advocating not just one preemptive nuclear attack, but a whole slew of them.

I would remind you, however, that Pakistan (a so-called "Islamist" state) does have nuclear weapons.

Anonymous said...

Way off base. Saying that a nuclear first strike by muslims is simply unthinkable to christians would tend to make the christians seem rather naive and unprepared for the modern world. I would find the thought of hi-jacking airplanes and bringing down the world trade center towers unthinkable as well...but obviously not all religious fanatics agree.

Thomas said...

I didn't quite say that a nuclear first strike by Muslims is unthinkable. I said a preemptive first strike by, for example, Christians, is unthinkable. Even where the imagined threat (of another's aggression) is truly imaginable, a preemptive response to that threat, simply by carrying it out against the presumptive enemy is, well, not very "Christian". I do think that a president of real Christian faith would presume similar attitudes in someone he believes also believes in another god. What one is really worried about is how an atheist president would respond to the acquisition of nukes by an enemy regime. They might, like Harris, fly off the handle and strike first.

In any case, the subject of the post was not the policy of first strike but Hedges' reading of Harris. To riff off your example, Harris seems to find it "thinkable" to preemptively shoot down Iranian airliners on approach to U.S. airports because you never know what those crazy muslim captains might pull. I was just saying that Hedges was not distorting Harris's point. Though he might have sharpened it a bit.

Simone said...

Hedges quoted Harris' book's paragraph in his entirety, but then implied that Harris advocates an immediate nuclear strike as the preferable solution to the "Muslim problem". The fact that he did so while having Harris' writing under his eyes shows simply how rageful and irrational Hedges is in misinterpreting his opponents' views. In this article, Thomas, i believe you made an argument for Hedges he did not mean.

JVRaines said...

"A president armed with ordinary Christian faith would have sufficient understanding of the faith of his adversary to find the scenario sufficiently implausible to keep that option off the table." Please support this assertion. What is this "understanding" that would lead a Christian to conclude differently from an atheist?

ds said...

JV Raines Christian just war theory historically holds to an absolute prohibition on killing the non combatants whereas Harris is sympathetic to secular utilitarian theories which allow rules to be overridden if the consquences of overidding them is sufficiently good.

Kassul said...

>Christian just war theory historically holds to an absolute prohibition on killing the non combatants

Not sure how relevant that is since a large number of Christian leaders and military people have not acted in accordance with that interpretation for quite a long time.

Effort are put in to minimize or reduce the number of non-combatants that are killed, but an "absolute prohibition"? Not in the wars or police actions or whatnot I'm aware of happening. Quite a few non-combatants are killed regularly because it's deemed acceptable for a few to die in order to raise the odds we kill those who are The Enemy.

Not really sure how Harris' presumed logic is different in kind, just degree.

Bombing a funeral because we figure there are some legitimate targets mixed in with the civvies seems to be of a similar kind to nuking a city to take out military targets(such as nuclear weapons of their own)

Anonymous said...