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Sam Harris defends his silence on Gaza slaughter (or tries to anyway)

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Sam Harris, from Wikimedia commons
Sam Harris, from Wikimedia commons

Last year Glenn Greenwald wrote that Sam Harris is a military hawk. And Murtaza Hussain wrote that he is a bigot. If the latest buffoonery of Harris is any measure, they were being excessively generous. He’s got a podcast titled “Why Don’t I Criticize Israel?”on his website about the war on Gaza. It says what he’s been saying for the past ten years: Netanyahu has the moral high ground. The IDF is brutalised by the Palestinians. And sympathy for their cause is a “moral illusion”. Like his hero Alan Dershowitz whose arguments he retails, and who beat him to the atheist lecture circuit by four years, Harris is shrewd enough to oppose the concept of a religion-based Jewish state because theology is the one fraud that he can see through. But the crimes and predations of secular Israel commands his full support. “I’m a great supporter of Israel” he told us on the book tour for The End of Faith, and his faith in militarism is one without end.

In fact, as one reads the transcript that accompanies the podcast, one realises that in spite of appearances to the contrary, his comments are not so much about Gaza, the three murdered Israeli teens for whose recovery Israel said it went to war, and whether Hamas was responsible for the abduction, over which there is much controversy, so much as why Israel is in the front lines of a global war between Islam and the West. He brings in topics that have no bearing on the matter at all such as international terrorist movements like al-Qaeda and ISIS. It’s all part of the same fight against Islam.

He wheels out the same worn arguments. Hamas, and Muslims generally, we are given to understand, hide behind civilians, and that accounts for the high death toll. Proof? None. That’s just what crazy Arabs do. They love shooting rockets out of their baby’s pram. But don’t you worry, he says, in spite of the fact that Muslims take cover behind their children, Israel is deterred by their use of human shields. Presumably when it’s not using them itself.

He argues the Hamas’s charter calls for the extinction of Israel. You would think its charter is the only document Hamas has ever published. Maybe they ran out of printers. It is a widely reported fact that Hamas accepts a two state solution on the 1967 borders. By a delightful inversion of morality, words on a paper outrage him more than bombing schools and hospitals and civilian infrastructure, more than the massacre of eight hundred civilians at the time of writing. He caricatures Gazans as a bunch of crazed Islamists when in fact the Palestinian resistance was secular until Israel began supporting Hamas as a counterweight to the PLO precisely because it did not want to make peace.

And in true Dershowitz form, Harris argues that Israel has exercised more restraint in its wars than America or Europe have in any of theirs. Plainly he’s never heard of Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti, or the dozens of other victims of US aggression who did not set off bombs in America.

He claims that Israel’s neighbours harbour genocidal intentions towards Jews. That will surprise the 20,000 Jews who live in Iran, the 17,000 in Turkey and the 15,000 in Azerbaijan. How Palestinians without an army, navy or air force can commit genocide against a nuclear power at all even if they wanted to is not explained. Harris plays on the idea of lonesome Israel encircled by a sea of enemies. As Murray Rothbard noted, in fact Israel is a modern European power that does battle with third world enemies. It is true that anti-semitism is rife in Muslim countries, as is anti-Americanism, and this evil should be denounced, but it would be confined to the lunatic fringe if not for the aggressive posture of the United States and Israel.

There is nothing in his commentary about the economic blockade of Gaza by air, land, and sea, and nothing about the land grabs in the West Bank, except to note that whilst he condemns Jewish extremists, by which, like Dershowitz, he means religious extremists, the only kind who exist in the world naturally, “Israel’s continued appropriation of land has more than a little to do with her security concerns”. So not about expansionism then. Only Muslims do that.

It’s all about the Islamic threat to the West: We must stand with Israel because they are the enemies of our enemies. “The truth is”, he says, “we are all living in Israel. It’s just that some of us haven’t realized that yet”.

Harris talks like it’s still 9/11. Back then he was indignant with the left for criticising the Bush administration’s war in Iraq because “there are millions of people in the Muslim world who are far scarier than Dick Cheney”, and now he’s angry that people should condemn mass murder. Here he is saying that the Iraq war was a reasonable position that intelligent people can support and that it  should have been waged with multilateral backing–to defeat the Muslim threat:

“Intelligent people could disagree about whether it was the right thing to do to go into Iraq. But one thing is pretty clear, going in we should have gone in with everybody. We need a truly international effort. We need to convince civilised democracies everywhere that civilisation itself has genuine enemies. These totalitarian, theocratic, tribal eruptions on many parts of the globe on a hundred fronts. Many if not most of them are Muslims.”

He is most happy when he can frame the discussion of war in religious terms. Israel is post-religious and the Palestinians are not. Therefore secularists should side with Israel. America is post-religious and Muslims are not. Therefore secularists ought to side with America. And because Muslims often use religious language to discuss political matters, because they say “jihad” instead of “let’s fight back”, and because they call their dead “martyrs” instead of “fallen heroes”, their concerns are not territorial at all, they are irrational superstition about which there can be no prospects for dialogue.

This habit of always angling for the religious dimension of a conflict, or projecting religion into it where it does not exist, is a consistent pattern of his thought. Even when he has no tribal attachment to the warring sides, he does not ask “Who is the aggressor?”, but “Who is more religious?”. For instance, he mentions the Iran-Iraq war in this debate with Chris Hedges. To most people, that was a straightforward case of aggression by Saddam Hussein against Iran. But Harris does not see that. He is more outraged by the fact Iran used suicide volunteers to clear minefields. “The war between Iran and Iraq was characterised on the Iranian side by this massive campaign of suicide bombing where teenagers were just goaded out to clear minefields by their parents” he says. That is the real problem: Muslims and their martyrdom cult. Not the half a million dead, not Saddam’s use of chemical weapons, not the American support for his invasion in which Harris says “We weren’t involved”. No, the true problem is Iranians defending themselves by suicidal means.

Even when the “martyr” kills nobody but himself in order to clear mines, he is the object of horror and condemnation. When asked by Robert Scheer, the debate’s moderator, what is the difference fundamentally between a suicide bomber and a fighter bomber in Vietnam or the atomic bombers on Japan, he simply evades the question, saying that he doesn’t want to defend the Vietnam war.

In fact, in The End of Faith, Harris argues that Vietnam illustrates the humanity of America because Americans were horrified by My Lai, a response that much of the world is incapable of. After describing the massacre in detail, he says:

This is about as bad as human beings are capable of behaving. But what distinguishes us from many of our enemies is that this indiscriminate violence appalls us. The massacre at My Lai is remembered as a signature moment of shame for the American military. Even at the time, US soldiers were dumbstruck with horror by the behaviour of their comrades. One helicopter pilot who arrived on the scene ordered his subordinates to use their machine guns against their own troops if they did not stop killing villagers. As a culture we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents. We would do well to realize that much of the world has not.

(The End of Faith, Page 144)

What kind of charlatan holds up a war that slaughtered two million Vietnamese civilians as an example of America’s compassion? The only thing wrong with Vietnam was My Lai, you appreciate. The use of Agent Orange and depleted uranium, the widespread torture, Nixon’s readiness to deploy nuclear weapons, the 150,000 children born with birth defects– these had no effect on the conscience of America. But My Lai, well, that was a freak aberration.

Again, when he talks about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in this debate with Robert Wright he is alarmed not by the over one million Afghans killed by the invasion, and not by the fall of the socially-liberal if autocratic communists of the PDPA who upheld women’s rights to the Islamists, thanks to American support, but by what he claims is Afghan fighters setting up encampments in the field of fire so they could be bombed and thereby martyred. Ignore the fact that no fighting force could have defeated Russia if that was indeed their military strategy, what is striking here is that he considers suicidal actions more alarming than aggressive wars that destroy a nation. You can bomb whatever you like, just don’t kill yourself in the process: such is the cutting edge philosophy of our deep thinker.

And it is a popular philosophy. His post has garnered close to 140 thousand Facebook likes. There is a kind of atheist who is impressed by this grotesquery, who thinks religion is the only consideration that should inform morality. Ayn Rand, grand dame of another generation of atheists, declared the Palestinians savages. Now Harris declares them barbarians. Atheism used to be represented by high toned thinkers like Carl Sagan and A J Ayer. Today it’s been hijacked by cheap demagogues without sense or decency.

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I think it’s been obvious for a long time that Harris, despite his masquerading as a proponent of the new oh-so-rational and oh-so-free-thinking atheism which was all the rage in the mid to late noughties, is nothing more nor less than a slightly more intelligent far-right anti-Muslim ranter a la Daniel Pipes or Pamela Geller. His ‘arguments’ lack depth or consistency. And there’s also the fact that Harris is shrewd enough to know that there’s… Read more »

I read this essay yesterday, and thought, this person is regarded as a serious public intellectual? This essay read like a tawdry high school paper — refulgent with intellectual dishonesty, twisted assertions about the world and weak reasoning. Scratch Sam Harris or Bill Maher and you will find a hardcore neocon — they are aggressively skeptical about everything in the world except Jewish ethnic nationalism — worthy targets of the ridicule they are so fond… Read more »

“As a culture we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate torture and murder of innocents.”

Leaving aside the murder of millions of Vietnamese, what about the torture that occurred at Abu Ghraib and gitmo? What about the slaughter of half a million Iraqi children from sanctions imposed on Iraq or the utter destruction of Fallujah in which Whiskey Pete was used? Is this the behavior of an enlightened culture?

Ha, the US virtues may outweigh our vices– I believe that but non-violent? Hardly. From the very beginning until the present. And 70 years ago is just one (american male) lifespan. roughly 70 years ago we burned Dresden to the ground with 25,000 people. And we made the canals in Tokyo boil with gasoline jelly: 100,000 civilians dead. And Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don’t think the Jewish communities you mention provide a very good example… Read more »

From Wikipedia: “In The End of Faith, Harris is critical of the Jewish faith and its followers:” The gravity of Jewish suffering over the ages, culminating in the Holocaust, makes it almost impossible to entertain any suggestion that Jews might have brought their troubles upon themselves. This is, however, in a rather narrow sense, the truth. […] the ideology of Judaism remains a lightning rod for intolerance to this day. […] Jews, insofar as they… Read more »