When Bad People Aren’t Responsible for Bad Things

Let us begin by acknowledging that burning books isn’t a particularly Enlightened thing to do. Nor is it practically effective: Where centuries ago you might stand a chance of torching an entire print run, today your chances of removing the suspect document from existence are practically nil.

Any residual value a book-burning has today is totally symbolic: You’re making a statement. And what that statement amounts to is usually this: I am the kind of person who burns books.

Which we think adequately describes Terry Jones of Florida.

Terry Jones burned a book a few weeks ago. As it happens, that book was the Koran.

And by now, you probably know the rest of the story.

It can be argued that Terry Jones set off a chain of events that culminated in the murders of twenty-one innocent people (so far) in Afghanistan. It can be argued that Terry Jones is responsible for those murders. If Terry Jones hadn’t burned that book, those twenty-one people would still be alive.

The first and third of those statements are true.

But they don’t demonstrate the second.

Let’s have a look at the initial NYT report:

Stirred up by three angry mullahs who urged them to avenge the burning of a Koran at a Florida church, thousands of protesters on Friday overran the compound of the United Nations in this northern Afghan city, killing at least 12 people, Afghan and United Nations officials said.

If we were to assign responsibility — beyond the folks who actually committed the murders — we would want to know more about those Three Angry Mullahs. We would want to know more in exactly the same way we want to know more about American politicians who use violent imagery to stir up crowds.

Speaking of politicians, let’s look at Saturday’s NYT follow-up:

Both Afghan and international news media had initially played down or ignored the actions of Mr. Jones, the Florida pastor. On Thursday, however, President Karzai made a speech and issued statements condemning the Koran burning and calling for the arrest of Mr. Jones for his actions. On Friday, that theme was picked up in mosques throughout Afghanistan.

Far be it from us to accuse Karzai of cynically exploiting an otherwise ignored event for political advantage. We’ll just say he knows his audience better than we do.

None of that absolves Terry Jones of the responsibility we would truly love to assign him. So let’s look at a previous, well-known incident the first NYT article mentions:

Afghanistan, deeply religious and reflexively volatile, has long been highly reactive to perceived insults against Islam. When a Danish cartoonist lampooned the Prophet Muhammad, four people were killed in riots in Afghanistan within days in 2006.

Would anyone blame Kurt Westergaard for the deaths his cartoon inspired? Of course not. Was Westergaard’s cartoon any different than Terry Jones burning a Koran? Of course, we would say. But not to the Muslims who opposed it. To that audience, both actions are equally insulting.

And since the NYT is so kind to provide it, let’s look at a third example:

The year before, a one-paragraph item in Newsweek alleging that guards at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, had flushed a Koran down the toilet set off three days of riots that left 14 people dead in Afghanistan.

Flushing the Koran is also equally insulting. But unlike the other two examples, we’re willing to assign some degree of responsibility here, because the action was committed by representatives of the United States government — the same government that is occupying Afghanistan. “Bad Apples” excuses don’t get you very far in that situation, especially if they’re palpably flimsy.

None of this forgives Terry Jones for being a fucking asshole. But in this case, we’re not of a mind to lay the murders at his feet, just because he’s a fucking asshole.


Thank you.

It is indisputable that Terry Jones is a complete and utter asshole, but when I read about the subsequent crime spree in Afghanistan I wondered about the mullahs and the reason they were stoking this particular fire by bringing it to the attention of their congregations. It seemed like a dickish thing to do. They and Jones have a lot more in common than they apparently realize.

As for Karzai, there is simply no excuse. He’s one more thing the US and Afghanistan have to thank George Bush Jr. for.

Said it before, say it again: As long as most of the inhabitants of this planet order their lives in line with the belief that there’s an invisible man in the sky who cares about them, we are doomed. It’s not Islam, Judaism, Christianity, it’s all of them. If I can’t convert you, I’ll kill you. It’s that simple.

@blogenfreude: I don’t know if I’d go that far.

One of my professors thought that the resurgence of fundamentalism is a response to fear of living in a very complicated world. How often does the Stuff People Know double now? It doubles so often that they can’t keep the rate updated. You can never know all there is to know about anything anymore. Want to be a Renaissance person? Good luck with that.

Mis/Information travels at lightening speed, and conflicting ideas, no matter how baseless some are, get the bullhorn treatment.

I’m not a fan of religion, but I’m not hating on it totally. At least not today.

Assholes get hated on just cuz.

Oh, and it does matter which AC adapter you use for your electronics. I believe Joe is fried.

Hell, this isn’t even really about religion. It’s about some wannabe Fred Phelps with a congregation of about the same size attention whore who stole his ‘stache from Hulk Hogan, a fucking dictator in training, some douchebag mini-dictators and some folks who want to kill people. That’s all hiding behind “religion.” What it’s really about is power or feeling powerful or any illusion of power.

Most human conflict breaks down to a fight over resources (hello, Israel/Palestine!), and people just slap religion or race or gender or ethnicity or whatever identifier on it they can think of to justify the fucked up shit they wanna do anyway.

@blogenfreude: And yet, there are substantially more of us walking the Earth today than at any moment in the history of the planet. We may be doomed, but religion didn’t prevent us from reaching this moment.

However, that same fact means there are a lot more of us squeezed together in a small celestial apartment. And some of us really need to turn that shit down.

@nojo: Religious idiots will keep us from doing anything about climate change and new forms of energy. It’s over.

@blogenfreude: Religious idiots led by corporate interests. Let’s not mistake the puppets for the puppetmasters.

@blogenfreude: @nojo: Well, about two years ago, the Southern Baptist leadership (such that it is, it’s really not all that powerful) came out and said climate change is real. I was thrilled to share this news with my mother. ;-) She told me to shut up. So, there you go. People are going to do what they wanna do, and they’re going to think what they wanna think. Most religious folks are the cafeteria type anyway (they pick and choose what to believe and what tenets to follow), so, yeah.

One more thing, and then Immabouta blow my metered internet wad on a movie.

Many people think that religion dictates or teaches morality. That belief is false.

Every believer imposes their own set of morals on their conception of God; whether God is loving, angry, just, whatever, that comes from people’s minds, experiences and ideas of what type of world and afterlife (if applicable) they want for themselves, their loved ones and their enemies. People reject gods and religions that do not conform to how they believe God is. In other words, believers themselves are the God(s) that live within their own minds that they project into the world. If you believe, you are God, and you ultimately believe in yourself.

One other thing that adds to Jones’ culpability, IMO, is the fact that he had been previously warned by no less than the American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Petraeus, that burning the Koran could result in extreme violence and possibly fatal harm to American service men and women. He knew very well what the consequences of his actions might be, and he definitely bears some responsibility–at the very least, reckless disregard for human life–in my moral universe.

@JNOV is like, Whoa: Would you PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF THE MAGIC MAN IN THE SKY change your fucking avatar? You’re hella hurting my eyes.

@Mistress Cynica: Yep.

@SanFranLefty: I really like Libbet. I think she compliments Tony quite well.

He’s totally not responsible for how people react to his actions, just like I’m not responsible for how people react to my avatar. I can reasonably guess how people will respond to seeing Yoo for the next, oh, I guess my movie will be over in about an hour (The Third Man is pretty good — I haven’t spotted Wells, though, and I think the woman is a spy), but to say that I’m culpable for how people react is to say that I have power that I don’t. People choose how to react. Sometimes it’s a rash, knee-jerk reaction, and people can be whipped up into a frenzy, but I’m not going to rob anyone of their (ahem) free will. How I react to complaints about posting this douchey picture is my choice, and I guarantee that the next one will be more offensive.

Okay, I gotta figure out where Orson is hiding. I bet he’s the third man.

@Tommmcatt is with Karin Marie on This One: I don’t understand the difference.

Okay — right about Orson. Not sure about Miss Schmidt. All I know is that I would not be getting on that creepy Ferris wheel!

@JNOV is like, Whoa: Religion is what people tell you. Spirituality is what you figure out for yourself.

@JNOV is like, Whoa: There’s a big difference between religion and spirituality or morality.

@Tommmcatt is with Karin Marie on This One: Right. But no adult worships a God they don’t like — they either find a new one until they’re satisfied, create one in their image or dispense with the idea.

@SanFranLefty: I still don’t see the difference between spirituality and religion. If you believe in a spirit or spirits of some sort, a religion, even if it’s a religion of one, springs from that belief. What religion/spirituality one chooses to practice is based on that person’s morals/ethics, not the other way around.

Right about Orson. Like the ending with Anna. Good stuff.

@Mistress Cynica: I’ve got 540 words on that queued up for Monday morning.

Just the fact that there are troops fighting in Afghanistan results in extreme violence and fatal harm to American service men and women as well as to Afghan men, women and children. What’s the collateral damage count up to? Do we even have reliable numbers?

Why can’t we all stop fighting wars and start watching more Mexican futbol?

@JNOV is like, Whoa: I think perhaps your difficulty is not so much about God per se as it is with the idea of worship. There are as many ways to worship, I think, as there are people. How other people worship is ultimately irrelevant, what is important, finally, is how you do. And you do worship something I believe. It is inextractable from the human condition.

But to say more would be pushing my conception of spirituality on you, which would, at that point, become a type of evangelism. I don’t believe in evanglisim no matter how much my tradition insists on it, so I think I will leave it at that.

@Tommmcatt is with Karin Marie on This One: :-) No, I don’t worship anything. Maybe the ghost in this machine, but I’ve taken it apart myself, and there’s nothing there but stuff people made.

There’s an interesting (to me) conversation in The Atheism Tapes between Jonathan Miller and Richard Dawkins. They talk about the clergyman in the laurel bush who jumps out at atheists and says, “Yes! See! You do believe!” It’s a common believer’s response to those of us who don’t believe in an sort of supernatural anything. Some folks have a really hard time accepting that there are those of us who say some variant of “There’s no proof of God(s), therefore, why bother?” or “God does not exist,” and they desperately want to believe (or impose upon us the idea that) we do believe in something supernatural.

I agree that we are hardwired to engage in magical thinking, just like we’re hardwired to survive and to procreate. Those few things are part of the human condition and what have kept us chugging along for awhile. It’s hard to imagine death as final, yet life and death do have vast meaning outside of belief. Whether we continue to engage in magical thinking or procreate is usually a decision that we make.

You’ve already nudged your conception of spirituality on me by telling me that I am a believer in something, so it’s too late to take it back. ;-P Unless it really goes against what you believe and would hamper your practice, I would love to know what/whom you think I worship.

@Tommmcatt is with Karin Marie on This One: I don’t believe in evanglisim no matter how much my tradition insists on it, so I think I will leave it at that.

See? Religion cafeteria style. You are choosing and imposing your ethics on your God. If you really thought God wanted you to evangelize, if you thought it was of the utmost importance, you’d be out tracting right now. ;-)

You know I love you, right?

ADD: Oh, I’m sorry. You wouldn’t be tracting. You’d be getting hair and makeup done for your TV show, because you’re Just. That. Hot. (C’est vrai.)

My god, you’re all busy. We were watching Mildred Pierce. Good beginning but then it turns to mush and poor Ann Blyth is dreadful.

@JNOV is like, Whoa: That’s a wonderful film. Carol Read, one of Britain’s best directors. And that ferris wheel. I swear I will ride it. Four years after the war ended when Vienna was in ruins. Someone there was pointing out to me where she would see the corpses of Russian soldiers lying in the gutter turning blue.

I’m with Cyn about this. And more to the point, it seems to me that if one does not accept a link between what is said and what is done, there can be no obscenity, no art, no reason to read George Elliot instead of Peggy Noonan. And I don’t buy it. Of course his actions were exploited in Kabul. What else would anyone expect them to do? Just as words spoken in Teheran are used to raise money for the Republican party here in the States. The Piss Christ provoked similar reactions, we just deal with them differently. We cut off funding and marginalize the artist. Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi was picketed and pulled by the theatre before they were shamed into putting it back on. Those events, however, like the Danish cartoons (his house is still guarded, and someone tried to break into it to kill him quite recently) were not expressly designed as acts of provocation – as I believe the events in Florida were. And BTW what they did was worse than simply burning the Qu’ran, they staged a trial complete with jury, counsel for the defense, etc. before damning it. There’s a site with the earnest maunderings of some of those involved expressing their righteous indignation. And on the church’s own website they are selling mugs and baseball caps decorated with the legend Islam is of the devil. They see themselves as warriors whose business it is to stop the ‘spread’ of Islam. They mean to do harm and are quite unrepentant.

Terry Jones was thrown out of Germany for just this sort of thing and was later denied entry to the UK.

@JNOV is like, Whoa: I think the hardwiring for magical thinking is more of a default wiring. People need to be able to explain the world to themselves, and without scientific knowledge of how things work, the stories are necessarily fantastical.

These stories — “religion” — helped people feel safe and grounded for many, many millennia. We have had true understanding of the physical world for only a couple hundred years, at best, and it’s still not complete. Reality cannot replace myth overnight.

I dunno who’s responsible for these douchebags, but whoever it is needs a punch in the face:

Fox Business hosts stoked about replacing union workers with unpaid welfare recipients

About the only thing they *didn’t* pull out of the closet-racist bag of Gilded Age nonsense was a joke about how the unpaid workers should sing spirituals and be given watermelon, and I’m pretty sure that took some convincing to cut…

@nojo: Puppetmaster point taken … gotta love me some Koch Bros.

@JNOV is like, Whoa: Love. The arts. Power. Wealth. Perfect knowledge through science. A perfect egalitarian society. We all revere something intangible and bigger than ourselves and strive to realize it for ourselves and others. Call it what you like; I call it worship.

@blogenfreude: I’m always curious how religion-is-the-source-of-all-evil folks don’t get tripped up by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. For starters.

@al2o3cr: You do have to admire their willingness to be so egalitarian in opening slavery up to any race.

@flippin eck: Revering an idea or ideal is not the same as believing in an entity outside of yourself that has special magical powers just because it has special magical powers.

Atheists do experience that feeling of belonging to something larger than the individual, but we just don’t attribute it to something supernatural.

Perfect understanding through science? Gravity is still a theory, and if it’s ever shown to be bad science, it will be tossed. Science can be tested, and the scientific method requires rigorous testing and independent verification by other scientists — no one guns more for shooting down theories and results than other scientists. Thing is, when science is bad, it eventually gets tossed. There’s no way to prove God(s)’ existence to my satisfaction, so I don’t worry about it.

If I worship anything/anyone, it’s my kid. I birthed him. I’m raising him. I have pictures of him. I see and speak to him on occasion. Until I’m proven to be delusional, I’d say he’s pretty real. If God starts speaking to me, I’m checking into the psych ward.

@al2o3cr: Sadly, the 1996 welfare “reform” by Bill Clinton imposed work requirements that are quite onerous on to recipients of public assistance – states were given the option of requiring up to 30 hours a week of work by recipients doing things like sweeping streets and cleaning up parks, in exchange for their miserly welfare checks. Makes it hard to find a “real” job when you’re doing work for next to nothing for the state at what works out to be a fraction of minimum wage. Of course, it’s still better than being arrested for some dinky drug possession and put to work at a prison industry for a dollar a day.

P.S. It’s a beautiful day outside (at least here in NorCal). Let’s all enjoy it.

@JNOV is like, Whoa: But you worship your kid out of love, right? I think love has “special, magical powers” that we can’t account for. What makes a magical concept more legitimate than a magical entity? If nontangible ideas are centralized into a godlike figure, that’s somehow less logical? Like I said, you’re free to delineate for yourself the ways that your faith in a magical concept like love makes you different/more sane/whatever than my faith of believing in a magical entity like God, but I don’t believe there’s a difference.

@SanFranLefty: It’s cloudy here but it’s also trying to push into the mid-60s (the warmest it’s been in nearly three weeks!), so I made the most of it by going for an “invigorating” bikeride this morning. And now, time for better-late-than-never taxes! Yay!

@JNOV is like, Whoa: Atheists do experience that feeling of belonging to something larger than the individual, but we just don’t attribute it to something supernatural.


Well, first, it appears I’ve been missing all the meetings.

Second, while I’m fascinated with the Aristotelian soul — which can be very roughly defined as the difference between living and not-living — I doubt I would call it, or anything, the feeling of belonging to something larger than myself.

I’m simply a critter among critters, the product of millions of years of happy accidents. One of those accidents happens to be self-awareness.

@flippin eck: We’ve broken 60 once this year. It rained 30 out of 31 days in March. I can’t believe I’m jealous of Chicago’s weather.

@nojo: One of those happy accidents happens to be self-awareness starting a blog. Fixed.

@Mistress Cynica: Yikes, darling. Sounds like it’s time for you to take a weekend getaway to the exotic, balmy locale of Chicago, IL. I heard HF is hosting cocktails on the lido deck at 5!

@flippin eck: That was about five happy accidents, depending how I count them at a given moment. Which is another reason why I’m a True Believer in Serendipity.

@karen marie has her eyes tight shut:
I think you’d stun the Fux Nooz crowd into silence if you told them there were *white* people on welfare; for them, “welfare recipient” is a nice replacement for “shiftless n-word”.

These aren’t even “workfare” gigs – they’re UNPAID “training”…

@flippin eck: Actually, if I do “worship” my kid, it’s not in a religious sense, and love is not a magical concept. I had almost two years of oxytocin pumping through my system due to his conception, birth and breast feeding. I also like him just cuz he’s a pretty decent kid (who doesn’t call his mother ;-) ), but, yes, science has been studying love and all its possible brain chemical and hormonal causes for years. You can measure oxycontin levels — it can be quantified. I’m sure there’s more to “love,” but it’s purely a biological response to what you see, smell, experience, etc. There’s nothing mysterious involved. It’s an evolutionary response that prevents infanticide and fosters procreation. <– Extremely simplistic breakdown, but love isn't an abstract concept.

I'm not saying you guys aren't logical in the sense that you aren't doing something that makes sense to you. Belief simply doesn't make sense to me; therefore, it’s illogical for me to believe. Tomm and you are the ones trying to convince me that I’m a believer in something supernatural (again, the clergyman in the laurel), and that’s interesting.

No, we’re not all the same — we’re not all believers. Believers have plenty of company; I don’t know why I need to be lumped into the group.

@nojo: No, I’m not saying that having a soul = feeling like you’re part of something larger than yourself, although religious anthropologists think that most people will experience “The Holy” at some point.

I meant that realizing that you’re simply a critter among critters, the product of millions of years of happy accidents. One of those accidents happens to be self-awareness is one of those things that makes me realize that I’m part of something larger: the world, humanity, whatever. I don’t attribute this feeling to anything more than to being the product of happy accidents (one of those happy accidents being the ability to feel emotion). I’m not thankful to god, but I realize I’m damned lucky that one certain sperm happened to fertilize that one certain egg in the right month of the right year, and here I am, self-aware. If I were unlucky, well, I’d never know, now would I? ;-)

Add a Comment
Please log in to post a comment