Sunday, June 10, 2007

CBS's Sunday Morning - Lying About Lying

Today, CBS's Sunday Morning opened with a segment on lying, entertaining but not particularly informative or worthy of comment.

What made me angry, however, was the use of a lie detector - a device that has absolutely no scientific basis. We don't know if it can detect lies at all or, if it can detect them, how often it can, or how often it misidentifies as a lie something that is the truth (or vice versa). Then the "expert" stated that he didn't even need the machine: he could tell if somebody was lying by listening to the voice. Proof? None, of course.

CBS would no doubt say that lie detectors are used by businesses and government agencies around the world, so there is no reason why it shouldn't use one. But, surely, there was no need to promote the device. The segment would have been just as interesting or boring, depending on one's perspective, without including it at all. Why not choose the "at least, do no harm" option?

How many people in the world have lost a job, not gotten a job, or been jailed because of a machine that is about as scientific as a Ouija Board? And why do so many people believe these devices actually work?

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Intelligent Design - The Senses - First in a Series

I'm sure it's been said before, and probably better, but if human beings were designed, the designer was either a novice, an incompetent or a sadist.

So, I've decided to look at the human body as a designer and see what exists and what could be improved, starting with the senses.

The eye gets a lot of attention from ID'ers because, they say, it couldn't have developed over time. I'll leave the detailed response to that particular idiocy to experts. But have these people ever considered what the eye's defects are? First, we see only part of the spectrum. Perhaps it would be hard to function if we saw the entire spectrum all the time, but wouldn't an intelligent designer have given us a switch or two so we could choose what part of the spectrum we would see at any given moment? And wouldn't it be useful if we could see in the dark? Or had an eye in the back of our heads so we could see danger approaching from the rear? And wouldn't it also be handy sometimes to be able to see really, really, really small things? Or to be able to see the farthest stars without a telescope?

Then, of course, there are all the visual problems human beings are subject to: near sightedness, far sightedness, astigmatism, presbyopia, cataracts, macular degeneration, blindness, etc. The eye is not, of course, unique in this respect. The typical Windows installation probably has fewer flaws than just about any component of the human body.

What about hearing? And smelling? Well, just as sight is limited to a certain spectrum, so is our hearing. Lots of animals hear better than we do. Since the world can be a very noisy place, however, I think we should be able to increase and decrease our sensitivity to various sounds at will. I would just as soon not listen at all to jackhammers, leaf blowers, or rap. As for smelling - well, I don't know if I'd like to be able to smell more things, but this is another sense for which an on/off switch would be extremely useful.

Democratic Debate - June 3, 2007 High Points

First, the moderator: Blitzer could have gotten in at least a few more questions if he had taken the time before the debate to thoroughly prepare his questions and had practiced stating them as succinctly and briefly as possible. And, as usual with these debates, he wasted valuable time on ridiculous questions, such as what each of the candidates would do with Bill Clinton.

So far, none of the moderators has focused in on, forcing responses from all the candidates, the questions that matter most to me: what would they do about Gitmo and the wholesale assault on civil liberties in this country: torture, habeas corpus, the Geneva Conventions?

Nevertheless, a couple of the candidates did mention these important issues.

Edwards was correct in calling the "War on Terror" a bumper sticker slogan:
I reject this bumper sticker, Wolf. And that's exactly what it is. It's a bumper sticker.

As president of the United States, I will do absolutely everything to find terrorists where they are, to stop them before they can do harm to us, before they can do harm to America or to its allies.

Every tool available -- military alliances, intelligence -- I will use.

But what this global war on terror bumper sticker -- political slogan, that's all it is, all it's ever been -- was intended to do was for George Bush to use it to justify everything he does: the ongoing war in Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, spying on Americans, torture.

None of those things are OK. They are not the United States of America.

In response to a question about The Patriot Act, Kucinich was eloquent:
Benjamin Franklin once said that those who would give up their essential liberties to achieve a sense of security deserve neither.

The Patriot Act has undermined civil rights in this country. And as president of the United States, one of my first acts in office will be to move forward to have the Justice Department overturn the Patriot Act as unconstitutional.

We have to remember that 9/11 led us down a cul de sac. Americans need to reconnect with our deepest sense of self here, Wolf. We have to remember that, you know, the courage that it took to form this country is still within us.

And I want to have what I call the 9/10 forum to recreate -- help us reconnect with the deeper sense of who we are as Americans.

In response to a different, and later, question about genocide in Dafur, Obama made a point that should be central to every Democratic campaign speech:
Second point, our legitimacy is reduced when we've got a Guantanamo that is open, when we suspend habeas corpus. Those kinds of things erode our moral claims that we are acting on behalf of broader universal principles, and that's one of the reasons why those kinds of issues are so important.

Gov. Richardson, in response to the same issue, said what I want to hear from every candidate - but he was cut off by Blitzer who didn't have the sense to take this opportunity to get responses from the other candidates:
We should shut down -- I would as first day as president, I would shut down Guantanamo. I would shut down Abu Ghraib and secret prisons. That is the moral authority that we don't have...

On health care, Edwards was the most honest when it came to the cost of overhauling the health care system:
Let me say, first, I think it's a very healthy thing that we have Democrats coming out with health care plans. This country's health care system is completely dysfunctional. I am proud of the fact that I was the first person to come out with a specific, truly universal health care plan.

Senator Obama came out with a plan just a few days ago, which I don't believe is completely universal, but he deserves to be credited because he laid out what the cost is, and exactly how he was going to pay for it.

I do believe that -- and by the way, you didn't say this, but my plan costs $90 billion to $120 billion a year.

I'd pay for it by getting rid of Bush's tax cuts for people who make over $200,000 a year.

And I believe you cannot cover everybody in America, create a more efficient health care system, cover the cracks, you know, getting rid of things like pre-existing conditions and making sure that mental health is treated the same as physical health, I don't think you can do all those things for nothing. That's not the truth.

And I think people have been so sick of listening to politicians who come and say, "We're going to give you universal health care. We're going to change the way we use energy in America. We're going to strengthen the middle class, have middle class tax cuts, and, in the process, we're going to eliminate the federal deficit."

I think it is way past time for Democrats to tell the American people that they can't expect something for nothing, and for Republicans to admit that they support tax cuts not in order to leave more money in people's pockets but because they want to starve the federal government in order to close down all of the government programs, which means just about everything except Defense, that they oppose. The reason Republicans don't do this, of course, is because they know they couldn't get elected dog catcher if they were honest about all the programs they want to shut down.

Senator Dodd surprised me by mentioning some key statistics that every Democrat should quote when Republicans start spouting off about our having the best health care system in the world:
Well, listen, this is a -- there's not a person in this audience or who's watching this program who wouldn't tell you that they've encountered the problems of the health care system in this country.

It is shameful. We rank 42nd in infant mortality in the United States worldwide. We rank 45th in life expectancy.

It is shameful that in the 21st century we have 47 million of our fellow citizens without health care coverage; 9 million children. And the number's growing every single day.

Look, as we've said here, there's basic agreement about universality here, dealing with information technology, preventive care, chronic illnesses -- what's been missing in all of this is the ability to bring people together to get the job done.

Senator Obama touched on the primary problem with health insurance strategies that rely on forcing everybody to buy some kind of insurance:
... But on this issue of mandatory versus nonmandatory (OFF-MIKE) going around trying to avoid buying health care coverage. And, in fact, if you look at auto insurance, in California, there's mandatory auto insurance -- 25 percent of the folks don't have it. The reason is because they can't afford it.

But, on health care, Kucinich wins. A single-payer system (which, Republicans to the contrary notwithstanding, is not the same thing as socialized medicine) is the only one that makes financial sense:
I reject this whole approach.

And the American people should know that with half the bankruptcies in the country connected to people not being able to pay their doctor bills or hospital bills, premiums, co-pays and deductibles are going so far through the roof, 46 million Americans with no health care, another 50 million underinsured, there is only one way to get health care coverage for all Americans.

And that is to have a universal, single-payer, not-for-profit health care system, Medicare for all.
Wolf, I have written the bill. It is H.R. 676, with John Conyers, supported by 14,000 physicians.

On gays in the military, I was surprised to find, on reading the transcripts, that the Democrats support not just ending "don't ask, don't tell" but on ending discrimination against gays in the military:

Senator Clinton:
And yet I have watched how "don't ask/don't tell" has been implemented. And I've concluded that it is not the best way for us as a nation to proceed.

It has been in many instances implemented in a discriminatory manner. You know, after the first Gulf War there was a big flood of discharges of gays and lesbians because they let them serve and then after they finished the war, then they discharged them.

In this particular time period, we've had Arabic linguists discharged under "don't ask/don't tell" when we are unfortunately so short of having people who speak the very language that our men and women in uniform have to understand in the streets of Baghdad.

So I believe we could change the policy to let gays and lesbians serve in the military and be covered by the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

So just like those who are not gays and lesbians, if there were conduct problems, then the conduct problems we looked at. But people would not be judged on who they are.

Senator Biden was both brief and inspired in his response:
Peter Pace is flat wrong. I've been to Afghanistan, I've been to Iraq seven times, I've been in the Balkans, I've been in these foxholes with these kids, literally in bunkers with them.

Let me tell you something: Nobody asked anybody else whether they're gay in those holes, those foxholes, number one.

Number two, our allies, the British, the French, all our major allies, gays openly serve.
I don't know the last time an American soldier said to a backup from a Brit, "Hey, by the way, let me check, are you gay, you straight?"

This is ridiculous.

And by the way, we got a war on our hands we're trying to end. In the meantime, we're breaking the military. Nine thousand of these people have been kicked out.

And on gay marriage, Edwards cut to the core of the issue:
I don't think the federal government has a role in telling either states or religious institutions, churches, what marriages they can bless and can't bless. I think the state of New Hampshire ought to be able to make that decision for itself, like every other state in the country. I think every church ought to be able to make that decision for itself.

And I think it's very important that we stand up against intolerance and against discrimination.

I think the state and federal governments should get out of the "marriage" business altogether: They should limit themselves to authorizing civil unions, regardless of the gender of the partners. Marriage should be a religious act , not a civil act. (In Latin America, a distinction between a civil wedding and a marriage por la iglesia has long been observed.)

Blitzer's dumbest question, about Bill Clinton, elicited the best response from Gov. Richardson:
Well, the ideal job for President Clinton would be secretary general of the United States. But that's probably not doable.

On global warming, we didn't get a lot of heat or light, but Edwards gets points for stating the obvious:
But in the short term, can America finally stop spending $3 billion a year of taxpayers' money subsidizing oil and gas companies that already make billions of dollars? That's what we ought to be doing.

One day I wish Republicans would should as much concern about corporate welfare as about social welfare policies.

Biden gave the best response on Iran:
Well, first of all, I would do away with the policy of regime change. What we're saying to everybody in Iran is: Look, by the way, give up the one thing that keeps us from attacking you and after that we're going to attack you, we're going to take you down.

It's a bizarre notion, number one.

Number two, understand how weak Iran is. They are not a year away or two years away. They are a decade away from being able to weaponize with exactly what the question was, if they put a nuclear weapon on top of a missile that can strike. They are far away from that.

Number three, in fact, we have to understand how weak that government is. They import almost all of their refined oil. By 2014, they are going to be importing their crude oil. There are much better ways if we had to get to the point of real sanctions of doing economic sanctions on them forcefully that way. But at the end of the day, if they posed a missile, stuck it on a pad, I'd take it out.

Most of the MSM appears never to have heard or, at least, learned from the saying "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me". Having not just been burned but scourged on the issue of Iraq and WMDs, most pundits are nonetheless confident that the government is telling the truth this time about Iran.

Kucinich raised an important point about how bad policies can boomerang:
I don't think that a president of the United States who believes in peace and who wants to create peace in the world is going to be using assassination as a tool.

Because when you do that, it comes back at your country. And I think that Osama bin Laden, if he's still alive, ought to be held to account in an international court of law. And so should any other person who's been involved in a violation of international law which has resulted in the deaths of many people.

And so, I think that an America which has a strong stand morally in the world is an America that shows a way to get to peace. And an America that stands for peace is a strong country. So I would say to answer that question, I don't believe in assassination politics, and when you do that, you inevitably bring the assassination of our own leaders into play.

As is true of all of these debates, there was a lot of bloviating and too little specificity. One should not expect Presidential candidates to answer hypothetical questions such as "under what circumstances would you bomb Iran", but I think every candidate for President should have well-considered plans about the tax system, health care, government priorities, etc.

The moderator and the during-and-after-debate pundits were also, as usual, the ones most deserving of outright disdain with their emphasis on who "won", who looked "presidential", what this did to their various chances, etc. I don't think I heard a single comment on something substantive.

June 3, 2007 Democratic Debate Transcript

Monday, June 4, 2007

Peggy Noonan and Conservative Values - Now We Know

In the June 2, 2007 Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan is upset. Why? Because the White House is calling Conservatives who oppose the immigration bill unpatriotic.

The president has taken to suggesting that opponents of his immigration bill are unpatriotic -- they "don't want to do what's right for America." His ally Sen. Lindsey Graham has said, "We're gonna tell the bigots to shut up." On Fox last weekend he vowed to "push back." Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff suggested opponents would prefer illegal immigrants be killed; Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said those who oppose the bill want "mass deportation." Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson said those who oppose the bill are "anti-immigrant" and suggested they suffer from "rage" and "national chauvinism."

Why would they speak so insultingly, with such hostility, of opponents who are concerned citizens? And often, though not exclusively, concerned conservatives? It is odd, but it is of a piece with, or a variation on, the "Too bad" governing style.

I don't recall Ms. Noonan's being upset when opponents of the war in Iraq were called "unpatriotic". Or when opponents to Gitmo were called unpatriotic. Or opponents to torture were called unpatriotic. Or opponents to the dismissal of the Geneva Conventions as "quaint" or the end of habeas corpus were called unpatriotic.

No, that was ok because they were, after all, just Liberals.

But calling opponents to the immigration bill unpatriotic is crossing the line.

So, now we know. There are only two things that can make a Conservative get angry at a Conservative President: raising taxes and calling other bona fide Conservatives unpatriotic. Trashing the Constitution is, however, the constitutional right of a Conservative President.

The End of Faith by Sam Harris - A Review

I finished the paperback edition a short time ago. This is a book even atheists should dislike. It is a thinly disguised jeremiad against Islam, not radical Islam or Islamism, but Islam, written by a man suffering (I hope) from a severe case of 9/11 PTSD.

[I am not and never have been a Muslim and, quite frankly, of the faiths I have studied, Islam would rank fairly low on the ladder of those that I might find personally attractive.]

Impetus (excuse?) for the Book
On page 152, (all page numbers refer to the Norton paperback edition), Harris asserts that "weapons of mass destruction will soon be available to anyone who wants them." Obviously, this is the line we have been fed by the Bush Administration. It has not occurred to Harris, or many others for that matter, that these Doomsday predictions are being thrown about by the same people who assured us that Sadaam had weapons of mass destruction that could be launched against the U.S. in 15 minutes. Perhaps I am being too cynical, but isn't it possible that these scenarios have been advanced as cover for the destruction of our civil liberties? Consider the following: The sarin gas attack in Japan has not been repeated. The anthrax attack in the U.S. has not been repeated (and, indeed, has disappeared from public discourse). The 9/11 attack was shocking in the way it turned a form of transportation into a weapon, but required no arcane knowledge. All of the attacks since 9/11 have also used conventional weapons. In short: if it is so easy to build and deploy weapons of mass destruction, where are they? Why are individuals still blowing themselves up with body-bombs? Korea, a modern, industrial country, has spent years developing a nuclear capability that, based on its recent tests, could not exactly be called a major success. But Al Qaeda terrorists hiding out in the mountains of Pakistan can build one? Maybe these Doomsday scenarios are not politically-inspired nightmares, but I think it reasonable to ask just how trustworthy the predictions are.

Still, it is clear that Harris is truly afraid and that fear is the obvious justification and explanation for this book.

His Solutions to the Threat
On page 129, he writes: "What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? ... 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." Wonderful: he wants us to drop a nuclear bomb on an Islamic country we are not at war with if we think it will save American lives. (Korea's nuclear weapons do not, apparently, pose the same kind of threat. Because Koreans are not Muslims?)

Pages 192-199 are a defense of torture in which, among other things, he states that "there is no ethical difference to be found in how the suffering of the tortured or the collaterally damaged appears." "... if we are unwilling to torture, we should be unwilling to wage modern war." And "Make these confessions as unreliable as you like --- the chance that our interests will be advanced in any instance of torture need only equal the chance of such occasioned by the dropping of a single bomb." So if there is a .5% chance that a terrorist will drop a bomb and a .5% chance that torturing a person will elicit that information, we are justified in torturing? "If there is even one chance in a million that he will tell us something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we should use every means at our disposal to get him talking."

These are the assertions of an atheist. If he is representative of all atheists, then the world certainly has as much to fear from atheists as from religious fanatics.

Focus of Book
Although the book's title contains the word "faith", it is directed predominantly at the "people of the Book": Jews, Christians, and Muslims (with most of the emphasis on the latter). By so limiting his arguments, he fails to address seriously, if at all, many important issues:

1. Is there something about the nature of religious violence that makes it worse than non-religious violence? This could be framed concretely thus: Were the Inquisitions or the European wars of religion worse than the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pat? (Harris rather flippantly avoids dealing with this issue by redefining Nazism and Communism as religions in everything but name.) Is it easier to manipulate people through calls to faith than through calls to family, tribe, ethnicity, language, or nationality? Do some religions lend themselves more easily to such manipulation than others? If so, what are the characteristics that matter?

2. Why do people believe? Not so long ago, the answer was rather simple: religion explained things that primitive (broadly defined) human beings did not understand: day and night, seasons, storms, droughts, etc. But today we know more about the universe than we have ever known; we know more about the development of life, the nature of our bodies than ever before. And every day we learn more. In short, science explains much (most?) of what various religions used to explain. Yet people still believe (and not just in the major religions but in astrology, tarot, black magic, etc.) It is not sufficient to declare that such faith is illogical. It is important to understand why, illogical as faith may be, billions of people do believe. On pages 37-39, Harris posits that it is the fear of death that is the source of religious faith. It is a not uncompelling argument, although Buddhists study to escape the cycle of unending rebirths, and I have read that it was Christianity's vision of a life after death that made it such an attractive alternative both to Judaism and non-deist religions. But, if faith helps people deal with the fact that one day they will die, what is the harm?

3. I know how Christian fundamentalists respond to such scientific findings as the age of the universe, but what about adherents to faiths not based on the Bible? Hindu cosmology describes a universe trillions of years older than ours really is, a universe that goes through ever larger cycles until it starts over.* So, how do "fundamentalist" Hindus respond to a science that says the universe is younger and is expanding forever? Do animists even care? In short, where are the fault lines between science and faith? If they are fewer, or nonexistent, in some faiths than in others, why?

4. I have studied many world religions, although not in great depth, but I think only those based on the Bible or Koran have adherents who believe that their religious texts were "written" (as it were) by a Supreme Being. The Analects of Confucius certainly were not. Nor, I think, are the basic texts of Theravada Buddhism so identified. Is the problem of a belief in an inerrant text limited to faiths based on the Bible and Koran?

5. Is religion enjoying a worldwide surge today and, if so, why? Or have believers simply become more vocal? Or are we seeing mainly a realignment: animists turning to Christianity, Catholics converting to Evangelical faiths, etc.?

Harris barely touches most of the above. He asks (p. 44) what sort of ideology would make one most capable of brutality and concludes that it is religion. But his arguments are all based on the Bible and the Koran and ignore all the other sources of violence. He may be right, that religion is the most dangerous ideology, but if he can't convince me (and I am willing to be convinced), he is unlikely to convince others. On page 13, he asserts that "intolerance is intrinsic to every creed". He simply ignores the fact that billions of people who believe widely different things have managed, at least on and off, to live at peace with their neighbors. Then there are the Latin American Catholics who also believe in astrology and tarot and black magic; the Chinese who were often adherents of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism at the same time; Japanese Buddhists who worship their ancestors in accordance with ancient Shinto rites. Hinduism is, perhaps, the most inclusive of all world religions, incorporating the symbols and stories of every faith it came in touch with until and excluding Islam. In short, not only have adherents of different faiths lived peacefully side by side but individuals can adhere to multiple creeds at the same time. This may be illogical, but it is nevertheless true. It is quite possible that the history of the world would have been much less bloody had religion never existed, but Harris doesn't even come close to proving such an assertion.

On page 53, Harris states that "Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion". True, but people may believe that blacks are inferior to whites, women are inferior to men, the English are inferior to the French, or, (a truly trivial example from a recent email I received) that it is a "myth that 'all caps' in online discussions is equivalent to shouting because shouting applies to hearing". In short, religion has no monopoly on people who believe firmly any number of things that may bear little or no relation to reality. Our ability to deceive ourselves appears to be pretty much unlimited.

The Attack on Islam
On page 33, Harris says "insert these peculiar beliefs, and one can only marvel that suicide bombing is not more widespread ." Hmmm, let's see. There are approximately 1.3 billion Muslims on the planet. (*) How many suicide bombers have there been? 500? 1000? 10,000? Let's say 10,000. That's 10,000/1,300,000,000 - a number so small, my calculator can't even handle it. A logical person, one not suffering from 9/11 PTSD, might argue that the vision of Paradise which Harris thinks is so compelling really isn't, or its attractiveness is mediated by other factors.

In Chapter 4, he asserts that "the problem with Islam" is that it is a "fringe without a center". He admits that "Christianity and Judaism can be made to sound the same, intolerant note --- but it has been a few centuries since either has done so." I think there are a few European Catholics and Protestants, to say nothing of Jews, who would be surprised to hear that.

On page 114, he dismisses the observation that Jews lived, relatively unmolested, for many centuries under Muslim rule when compared to Christianity by listing all the Muslim pogroms against Jews from 1700 to 1947. Great. Now we are comparing the relative humanity of two faiths on the basis of which has killed the most Jews? (I have often thought that the greatest tragedy that has befallen the Jews was not the destruction of the Temple or the Diaspora but the fact that Jesus and Mohammed were unable to create brand new, totally distinct religions that had absolutely nothing to do with Judaism or the Jewish Biblical stories.)

On pages 117-124, he lists a series of phrases from the Koran demonstrating its inherent intolerance. He admits that the Bible also contains some intolerant statements but concludes, with no evidence, that the Bible has countervailing statements which the Koran does not. Now, I have not studied either the Koran or the Bible in that kind of detail, but I find the argument highly suspicious. How does one weigh the intolerance of a religious text? By the number of "intolerant" statements? The percentage of violent passages to peaceful or loving passages? The actions of its most violent followers?

On pages 124-126, he discusses a Pew Research Center survey of Muslims asking if suicide bombing in defense of Islam is ever justified. Of 12 countries he lists, in two (Lebanon and Ivory Coast) more than 50% agree that it is. The percentages in the remaining 10 range from 13% to 47%. Harris sites these results as proof that Islam is inherently dangerous. I, on the other hand, given the current state of the world, was rather encouraged. Harris, anticipating that response, jiggers the numbers by including all but the "never justified" responses. The rankings, of course, change. Now, in six of the countries, more than 50% approve of suicide bombing in some circumstances. He says "These are hideous numbers. If all Muslims had responded as Turkey did (where a mere 4 percent think suicide bombings are 'often justified', 9 percent 'sometimes', and 7 percent 'rarely'), we would still have a problem worth worrying about;" Isn't it possible that those results are at least as dependent on modern events and political figures as on anything inherent in Islam? What would have been the results had the survey been conducted 100 years ago?

I found a Pew Research survey, conducted Oct. 2005, on the attitudes toward torture by Americans broken down by faith. []
63% of the general public (72% of Catholics, 65% of White Protestants, 45% of Secularists) approved of torture at least sometimes [I did the same jiggering that Harris did]. I find these numbers as frightening as Harris found his suicide bombing numbers. But what does this tell us? That Americans are awful people? That Catholics are more bloodthirsty than Secularists? Or that it is easy to get people who are afraid or feel vulnerable to support acts they would not otherwise have ever considered?

And I wonder what surveys in various countries over various periods would have shown for support for slavery, for anti-Semitism, for discrimination on the basis of sex, language or ethnicity, etc. This is not to say that the suicide bombing numbers are not disturbing. But they do not, to me, prove that Islam is inherently evil.

Concluding (somewhat rambling) Thoughts
Suicide bombing is a relatively new phenomenon. We find it especially abhorrent, I think, because of the Judaeo-Christian attitude toward suicide as well as the fact that the bombing is aimed at innocent civilians. But human history is unfortunately replete with the murder of innocent civilians. I doubt seriously whether the dead cared if they were killed by clubs, knives, arrows, machetes, guns, smallpox-infected blankets, bombs in a city square or bombs dropped from the sky. Does it matter if these civilians were killed because they were Protestants in a Catholic country or Catholics in a Protestant country, Basque speakers in a Spanish land, natives in the path of somebody else's Manifest Destiny, Tutus or Hutsis, or just road kill in the way of marauding armies? Warfare has never been limited to battles between competing professional armies.

During the past 2,000 years of world history, how many people have died at the hands of Christians vs. how many at the hands of Muslims? If it turned out that Christians had killed more people than Muslims, for religious reasons, would it prove that Christianity is inherently evil? How many people have died in wars that had no religious motivation? Was the slaughterhouse of World War I the result of religious differences? If one is going to make the argument that religion is the most dangerous force on the planet and that, of all religions, Islam is the most dangerous, one needs a lot more proof than what Harris offers in this book.

Milosevic was able to use religion to generate a genocide in the Balkans, among people who had lived side by side in peace for decades. Many of the people he roused had lived through the WWII Holocaust and so, one would have thought, would have been aware of the dangers of a genocidal appeal. But Milosevic was still able to make them see their neighbors as enemies.

For decades in this country, the phrase "Happy Holidays" has been an alternative to "Merry Christmas" and "Happy New Year". But two years ago, O'Reilly decided it was a sign of disrespect, an attack on Christmas by non-Christians (read "Jews"). All of a sudden, thousands of people who had probably never thought twice about it, started writing letters to major department stores, TV networks, magazines and newspapers complaining about the lack of respect for their religion. I wonder, not without some degree of fear, what the response would have been had O'Reilly demanded that department stores remove Channukah cards from their displays. Think about it. 90% of the people in America are Christian, but a few demagogues have made them believe that their religion is under attack. Why, therefore, should we be surprised if men like Bin Laden have decided to use the Koran to wage a war on the West or that they have been successful in winning adherents by doing so?

It seems to me that human beings have been designed to respond with violence to many types of appeal (think about simple mob violence). Are some religious beliefs especially amenable to manipulation by people with a thirst for power? I don't know, but Harris's book does not prove his case.

**I was more than a little surprised by the number of "secular/nonreligious/agnostic/atheist": 1.1 billion. Does Harris realize how much company he has?

*from the Wikipedia:
"The later puranic view asserts that the universe is created, destroyed, and re-created in an eternally repetitive series of cycles. In Hindu cosmology, a universe endures for about 4,320,000,000 years (one day of Brahma, the creator or kalpa) and is then destroyed by fire or water elements. At this point, Brahma rests for one night, just as long as the day. This process, named pralaya (Cataclysm), repeats for 100 Brahma years (311 trillion human years) that represents Brahma's life span. It must be noted that Brahma is the creator but not necessarily regarded as God in Hinduism. He is mostly regarded as a creation of God / Brahman."

JFK plot

Let's see. They infiltrated this group in January, 2006. 16 months later the group still has no money, no equipment, and only the fuzziest of plans.

Why, exactly, did they arrest this bunch now? Sure, you wouldn't want them to wait until they were about to touch off the match, but wouldn't it have been better - for the greater war on terror - to wait until they could catch some bigger fish?

And why do they announce not only the capture but the plans? We're not supposed to know who's in Gitmo because that would be giving aid and information to the enemy. This is different? And does it really make sense to let the world know exactly what the plans were? Isn't it possible that there may be people out there who had never thought of this particular tactic but will now consider it as one more option.

I think, perhaps, the greatest single danger to this nation at the moment, terrorwise, are these government officials who announce the capture of obviously inconsequential people with grandiose ideas that a more competent group of terrorists will learn from.