During the 2016 presidential campaign, the Democratic leadership excoriated Donald Trump. (All is fair in love and war.) But thinking that he could not possibly win, mainstream Republicans did too. Mitt Romney called him a “phony” and a “fraud.” He said Trump has led the nation to the abyss. He was, of course, right – not exactly a hard call to make. (I can only imagine, but it must have been fun to be on that Right-rickety bandwagon, cannibalizing one of your own and feeling good about it because it was, well, the right thing, the honest thing, the decent thing, to do.)
But then, against all odds, Trump won. He didn’t even want to win. Nothing in his curriculum vitae even remotely suggested that he has ever had the slightest interest in public service.
Now he is being fawned upon for jobs by those that quite rightly denounced him a month ago.
Neil Cavuto of Fox News openly wondered how Trump could meet with Romney at all. But this pondering came across as somewhat silly. After all, if Trump could only choose from his apparatchiks, he would have to fill a thousand administration positions from a pool of people he could count on two hands. The parade of possibles now meeting with Trump at his private golf club or his suite at Trump Tower in New York is pathetic, grotesque, and of course expected.
They are, to use Hillary Clinton’s phrase, a basket of deplorables. Not the toothless, racist hillbilly kind of deplorables, but rather the polished, Ivy League kind. They’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and they speak in complete, reasonable sentences. And they’re shameless. Some of them may think that they can make a positive difference in the Trump administration, perhaps even pushing back against their new Commander In Chief’s basest instincts. Others, a minority to be sure, might be true believers. Still others, more likely than not, just want a job, like so many other Americans, and Trump did, after all, promise to bring jobs back to America, a promise he of course can’t fulfill.
Donald is, of course, loving it. For those glad-handing job seekers, though, they might have to look their children in the eyes one day, and not with sexual ardor, I hope.
I recently attended a Father’s Day event at my kids’ school. It was horrific.
A few weeks earlier there was a Mother’s Day event which consisted of a catered brunch, the presentation of crafts made by kids for their moms, and a touching video honoring mothers around the world. Perfect.
The majority female administration, faculty and staff at our children’s private school, though, couldn’t leave dads twisting in the wind, and a handcrafted collage just wouldn’t do – aren’t dads the conventional under-recognized tripartite of the family unit?
Someone – undoubtedly a woman – came up with the brilliant idea of inviting all the fathers with their children for some bonding, exercise, and games on a Thursday afternoon outside in the blistering June heat in Chihuahua. Text messages erupted in protest, but we went anyway; after all, it was to honor us (and guilt is a powerful motivator). So after work, middle aged men in suits went through eight circuits with their kids, alternating between dancing, sack-racing, aerobics, obstacle courses, water-balloon tosses and all manner of other clichéd “fun” activities for families.
And it was great fun. For the kids. Kids don’t mind high-desert dirt sticking to their perspiration-drenched bodies as they run and squeal and play with their friends. Dehydration can be a hoot. But this wasn’t Children’s Day. (Every day is Children’s Day, plus they get an extra one thrown in, not even counting Student’s Day.) This was Father’s Day, and the attending fathers (I wouldn’t claim to speak for them all), didn’t have such a great time (as their ruddy faces, glum expressions, and stained trousers seemed to hint).
Personally, I don’t think we deserve a special day – not even the most responsible, disciplined and attentive of us. All we did was ejaculate inside of a women and they took care of the rest, which is the hard part of making babies.
Someone had a brilliant idea that it would be great fun for fathers to bond with their kids in a team building exercise for Father’s Day sponsored by the school. But if you’re a dad and you’re not doing that on a regular basis with your children by taking them to parks, to museums, to family events, or even just playing board games with them, then you’re a fuck-up of a personal father failure, and a once-a-year hopelessly-contrived school day with your kids is at best a token acknowledgment of your paternity and responsibility as a person.
I’m not saying we don’t deserve some recognition, but it should be proportional, and usually it is. A personalized coffee mug, a six-pack of artisanal beer, an afternoon left unmolested to nap in front of the TV. That doesn’t seem to be asking for much. And that’s all we want.
So take it easy. Speaking for myself, I don’t want equal recognition, and I don’t think I deserve it at any rate. But even if I did, I would be happy with a brunch (I might insist on just one mimosa), and that would be it. Anything more would be gratuitous politically correct pandering.
And I almost forgot. When we got home my daughter cried because we left about five minutes before every last balloon was popped in the grand finale of balloon-popping as the sun was setting and the commute traffic was heating up. The kids were so exhausted they slept in my bed. I slept on the couch.
[Author’s note: the events memorialized in this essay took place between 2002 and 2013, with the actual writing of this story in 2014; the recollection of past and exact dates are subject to the vagaries of memory; names have been changed. Unless captioned, photographs are from local media sources, some are graphic.]
The drug war being fought in Mexico is very different from America’s war on drugs. The war in America is prosecuted by the government against her ordinary, if not usually her poorest, marginalized residents. The Mexican war consists of a bloody triangulation of an asymmetric conflict between the Mexican government and her hyper-violent competing drug cartels. They are more than just symbiotic: they are obligate. And neither war is necessary. Indeed they exacerbate the problems of drug abuse, violence, the public health crisis, and human rights violations. This is my story of having lived through Mexico’s ongoing drug war, viewed through the duel lenses of academia and personal experience.
Up Close and Personal
It was an idle Wednesday afternoon in the sweltering summer of 2011. I was returning home from an insufferably boring faculty meeting, my tie loosened, the air conditioning full-blast in my little Seat Cordoba, waiting at the traffic light on an overpass at the Periférico de La Juventud and Juan Escutia only a few kilometers from my house. I could taste the ice-cold Indio beer waiting for me. A Jeep pulled up directly in front of me, blocking the intersection. A man wearing a black ski mask exited the back holding an automatic rifle, not the easily recognizable AK-47 or AR-15, with which I am familiar from my youthful U.S. Army days. I saw the simultaneous bird-like head jerks of surprise by the two young male passengers, the half-second of hesitation, the “oh shit’ moment just before the bullets’ impact. The sicario unloaded a full magazine into the VW Jetta. Amongst the shattering glass and deafening noise I oddly noticed a phone number painted on the back window with white shoe polish, indicating the car was for sale. From the corner of my saucer-eyes I slunk down low in my seat and turned to look straight ahead, barely able to see above the steering wheel, my heart suddenly pounding out of my chest.
Another volley erupted – presumably a second magazine was emptied – but I was looking now straight ahead. And the Jeep was gone. It couldn’t have taken more than 10 seconds. Nothing to be done, no available escape, only the brief fiery fear that a stray bullet might part my head as clean as a machete could a coconut. The light turned green and I accelerated. In the rearview mirror I could see cars driving around the Jetta as if it were occupied by a couple of hapless motorists who ran out of gas. But of course it was occupied by the corpses of two young men – two among more than 120,000 others who have been murdered during the ongoing Mexican narco wars. And another 26,000 disappeared, presumed dead. More than all combatants killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last two decades.
The next morning, El Heraldo – one of two major newspapers in Chihuahua’s state capitol of the same name – reported the assassination in the crime section; it hardly warranted, and was not given, a front page spread. Standard hits such as these read like a local police blotter from Peoria, but with the obligatory and gratuitous photos of bloodied, lifeless bodies shredded by high-velocity rifle rounds. No one got the license plate number, but even if they had it would have undoubtedly come back as stolen. The carjacking of nondescript SUVs for the purposes of carrying out gang hits is the preferred method for acquiring a vehicle to do dirty work. Sometime later, perhaps a month or so, an unwisely feisty mother of two refused to turn over the keys to her Suburban and was shot in a supermarket parking lot. She died on the scene with her two kids still strapped in their seats. Another story buried in the back pages of the crime section. Still later, one of my law students, AC, unwisely refused to give over the keys of his Trailblazer and was shot in the head. He survived, but suffers from lifelong disabilities of both movement and mind.
For many years there was a tacit understanding between the Mexican government and the various drug cartels, a sort of inevitable tolerance of each other brought by a common understanding the market for illegal drugs would never go away, nor would the attempts to stop it. Though this is somewhat of an oversimplification, the unspoken agreement more or less consisted of a recognition that both had a job to do and a role to play: the government knew it could never win outright, and the cartels acknowledged that some drug busts and apprehensions were the cost of doing business. The government was in the need of occasionally arresting a cartel lieutenant and interdicting drugs headed for the border, in exchange for the cartels keeping their cool ─ a lid on outright turf war. The PR was necessary. Until 2006, Mexico’s heart was never really into confronting drug cartels in a serious and sustained way, but cooptation by the U.S., and the money provided for drug enforcement and interdiction, made it an inevitable, albeit futile, exercise, largely for show. There had always been some violence between competing cartels, and between various state and federal police agencies and cartels, but the grease of corruption and the unstated acknowledgment that stopping proliferate trafficking was a fool’s game, kept the squeaky wheel of violence to a minimally acceptable level.
But then the conservative National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional or PAN) Candidate, Felipe Caldarón, won the 2006 presidential election, and made good on his promise to clean up corruption and rid Mexico of the drug cartels. This was, unfortunately for me, just after I had decided to pursue my passion for food and open a Spanish restaurant. Three months after our grand opening of El Capote, the violence was nearing its apogee. Assassinations at traffic lights, on the street, at car washes, in bars and restaurants, were daily occurrences. Massacres of dozens of people at single locations became common. Running gun battles now included grenades and rockets. Mexicans who had the financial means moved into gated neighborhoods, or out of the country altogether. People stopped going out. Almost half of all restaurants in the cities of Chihuahua and Juarez closed, and in some places a quarter of all businesses, whose owners were coming under increasing threats of extortion from cartels who were being squeezed harder and harder, not to mention the precipitous drop in tourism one might expect. Suddenly our restaurant was empty. Broken hearted, we closed, and for the first time in many years, I cried like a baby. Deep, guttural sobs. I now realize, many years later, that I was not crying for our restaurant, I was crying for Mexico, my adopted country. The morning after our first Help Wanted ads ran for waiters and cooks, there was a line of hopefuls outside the restaurant. And not just young people looking to earn extra money, but people with bachelors degrees: accountants, nurses, graphic designers. I was taken aback by the resumes. My manager half-smiled at me and shook his head. “Es México, Jefe. La vida es una batalla.” Yes, life is a battle in Mexico, both figuratively and literally.
I went back to my teaching job, stopped reading the local papers, and tried not to notice the violence, although often it was impossible. There was the bloody body in the street I encountered just outside of Wal-Mart so freshly killed the police had not arrived yet and no crowds had the time to gather. There were the two hours locked inside a convenience store on a late-night run for cigarettes because a gun battle had erupted outside. When another midday firefight broke out in the parking lot of a strip mall where my wife’s family owns a store, our kids were almost trampled by people running to get out of the way. Thankfully the only casualties were a two critically wounded policemen and a bullet hole in my brother in law’s delivery truck.
That last incident was also the last straw. We had been thinking about moving for some time. But my wife’s family has deep ties to Mexico. Her grandfather was a former governor of Chihuahua State. They are known and respected and financially comfortable. Although I’m an American and our kids have U.S. passports, my wife would never consider moving to the States, despite having been educated there. Emotional ties to one’s country often run irrationally deep. We decided to make a go of it again in a safer place, in Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, along Mexico’s beautiful Riviera Maya coastline. We would still be in Mexico. It seemed like a reasonable compromise, and we planned to return when things calmed down.
Fighting the Bad Fight: Policy Meets Reality
The war at home is different, but it is a war nonetheless. It is not a war largely waged against drug traffickers, although that front certainly exists in the form of futile drug interdiction efforts. It is a war waged by the U.S. government against its citizens, mostly the sad, desperate dystopian society-within-a-society. Understanding its origins and its consequences is not especially complicated.
According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the trade in illegal drugs is worth more than $300 billion annually, making it the world’s most lucrative business market. Bigger than IBM, bigger than General Electric, bigger than Apple, bigger than Telmex (the Mexican company owned by one of the world’s richest men, Carlos Slim). And the reasons for this are clear. First, people like to consume drugs. Second, drug traffickers don’t have to bother with inconveniences like paying taxes, complying with national and local business laws, permits, or any other form of business regulation. What’s more, the market is not ever likely to disappear. Since before recorded history, evidence suggests that our species were quite fond of drugging themselves. Excohotado points this out convincingly in A Brief History of Drugs: From the Stone Age to the Stoned-Age. (We have very good evidence, too, that other animals like to alter their consciousness for pleasure – to get high – such as African elephants, North American birds, and dolphins, but to name just a few.) The world’s first civilization, the Sumerians, dating from 7,000 BCE, discovered the pleasure of opium around 3,400 BCE. It’s been a mind-altering thrill ride since then, but only in recent human history have we been overly concerned about the phenomenon.
A study of alcohol prohibition in America proves instructive. It was a national disaster. Drinkers didn’t stop drinking because alcohol was illegal. They just bought their favorite drug from a different source ─ the black market. The American mafia was born. Violent clashes between rival gangs and bootleggers vying for territory, and between the police and these newly-minted criminal elements, bloomed into a low intensity war where thousands of lives were lost. Not surprisingly, the homicide rate increased drastically during Prohibition, and fell drastically after it was repealed, despite economic hardships brought by the Great Depression. Equally important is the surprising fact that while alcohol consumption initially went down during the first years of prohibition, in a few years it increased to 70% above pre-Prohibition levels despite being illegal. By prohibiting the production and consumption of alcohol, the use of alcohol increased, as did violent crime, which is not, I suspect, exactly what the government had in mind when the law went into effect.
After 13 years of gun battles with bootleggers and gangsters, Prohibition was repealed. The grand experiment proved to be an epic failure. After repeal, tax money from alcohol sales poured into the accounts of the federal and state governments, quality standards of alcohol products were promulgated and enforced, and regulations were put into place enforcing things such as the minimum age to purchase and consume alcohol, the labeling alcohol content, and restrictions on marketing activities, among many others. Violent competition and bootlegging evaporated as legitimate business enterprise took over the alcohol market. It is universally agreed by historians that Prohibition was a huge blunder, a fact wholly lost on the U.S. Congress. “We learn from history that we do not learn from history,” as Hegel so famously and presciently noted. At the time we were ending the failed experiment of alcohol prohibition, we were beginning, this time in earnest, the very same approach to prohibition with other drugs, and not at all surprisingly, to a similar result.
I’ve published two academic articles on U.S. drug policy as well as several magazine pieces, and the results of my research have surprised even the cynical me. The impetus for illegalizing most drugs in the U.S. came not from science, but rather xenophobia. First, we banned Chinese opium dens, then marijuana used mainly by Mexicans, then hashish favored by Sikh Indian immigrants, and of course cocaine favored by the black community. But branding the War on Drugs with the caustic simplicity of “racist” would be too convenient, and superficial. The white ruling class, as it turns out, did not (as is often argued) intentionally target minorities to imprison them, concocting their preferred drugs as an convenient excuse, though one might reasonably argue this has been the net result.
We learn from modern evolutionary biology that we humans are tribal–we are adapted for survival on the African savannah to stay within our own tribe, help one another, and be suspicious of other groups that may want to harm us and are competing for the same scarce resources. We tend to not like groups that are different from us. In fact, studies by scientists have demonstrated that the human brain is really only capable of knowing from about 150 to 290 individuals (our tribe): their personalities, ambitions, hopes, dreams, fears, etc., in any significant way. After that we have to rely on abstractions, constructs, and stereotypes. This, in turn, tends to lead us into xenophobic behavior, often without realizing it. It is natural to want to control other groups that are different from us; different in terms of race to be sure, but also language, religion, customs, among many other things. After all, in our still (relatively) primitive brains are fine-tuned to be living in tribes on the savannah. This explains why such wild claims were made about the dangers of drugs like marijuana and heroin when there has never been any good scientific proof of particularly insidious harm. In fact, the most dangerous and most abused drug – alcohol – is not only legal, aggressively marketed if not glorified within the media, but is also the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States according to The Centers for Disease Control. And the vast majority of overdose deaths in the U.S. are from prescription drugs, not illegal drugs, while not a single death has been attributed to marijuana.
In 1970 we saw tribalism raise its ugly head once again. Richard Nixon was having nothing to do with the long-haired, counter-culture, pot-smoking, acid-dropping, hippies; they threatened conservative social values. They weren’t part of the tribe. Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. The following year President Nixon signed the Act, and in a speech to the Congress which was televised nationally, declared his War on Drugs. Nixon’s War on Drugs was a brilliant political move, not only resulting in his landslide election in 1972, but also leading to many other international leaders copying his “tough on drugs” strategy (often pushed along by means of cooptation by the U.S.). Initially funded by one hundred million dollars in federal money, funds poured into state, local and federal law enforcement coffers around the nation. The War was on.
Currently the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, far exceeding both Russia and China, and the majority of inmates are poor whites and minorities in jail for non-violent drug-related charges. Since 1970, the U.S. has spent more than one trillion dollars on this drug enforcement effort, and the social cost to otherwise law abiding and productive citizens jailed for recreational drug use is immeasurable: families separated, casual drug users branded as felons, lost jobs, and all-too-many lost lives.
And not only has drug use remained essentially unchanged since the War really turned its swag on in 1988, but drugs are much more potent and much cheaper than they have ever been. Meanwhile, in other countries like Portugal, which have abolished all criminal penalties for personal drug possession, drug use by teenagers has declined, the rate of HIV infection among drug users has dropped, deaths related to heroin and similar drugs has been cut by more than half, and the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction has doubled. In a 2008 World Health Organization study, the United States ─ despite its stringent federal anti-drug laws ─ found that Americans have the highest level of illegal drug use of all countries surveyed, far exceeding levels of drug use in countries with liberal drug policies such as the Netherlands, Portugal and Greece, among others.
The historical data and empirical evidence are crystal clear: the War on Drugs is an abject failure of public policy of such colossal proportions that is almost cannot be exaggerated. It impinges on the very concept of freedom and individual liberty. It imprisons perfectly happy, healthy, and productive citizens. It encourages violence and weakens public health. It is an immoral abomination, and indeed I am at a loss for words to describe its utter fatuity.
The answer to the question of why we haven’t abandoned this costly canard comes in three parts, each one of which is powerful in its own right, but together arguably insurmountable: money, propaganda, and counter-intuitiveness.
Once the government establishes a multitude of federal and state agencies to accomplish a mission with billions of dollars of funding, creating thousands of well-paying jobs, defunding becomes an exercise in futility. If you are in political office at the municipal, state, or federal level, even hinting at defunding, much less reducing funding, or still less liberalizing U.S. drug laws, your career is likely to be a short one. Second, because we have for so long been bombarded with the anti-drug propaganda on the evils of drug use, it has become a part of our collective “knowledge,” despite the Everest of scientific data that contradict it. The third reason that U.S. federal drug policy has not been liberalized is that asserting fewer drug laws will not result in more drug users is deeply counterintuitive. Yet when examining data from other jurisdictions as well as our own historical evidence, it is undeniably true. As the great historian Barbara Tuchman said in 1984, once a government commits to a policy, no matter how purblind and asinine it may prove to be, “all subsequent activity becomes an effort to justify it.”
How Could One Expect Otherwise?
In 2004, before my wife and I had children, we travelled around Mexico, visiting every state in an old Chrysler Spirit. But the bohemian life wears on you after a while, so we temporarily “settled down” in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of the state of Chiapas, taking a one-year English teaching contract. For our two week summer break, we decided to take a road trip (upgrading the Spirit for a 1980 4WD Chevrolet Blazer) with two fellow teachers, Jaime and Magdalena. Both were Canadian, although Jaime also held U.S. and Peruvian passports. At the time my Spanish was still pretty rudimentary, so Jaime’s native Spanish skills came in quite handy, especially when it came to finding mota. The day before our scheduled departure he asked me if I knew where to buy pot, and of course I didn’t. (Our usual dealer, a toothless local journalist living in our apartment building was out of town.) “No worries,” he said, “Let’s go have a look.” After asking a few appropriately grungy locals, we were directed to a traffic cop, who sold us quite a lot of high-quality cannabis at a reasonable price. This was my first important practical lesson about living in Mexico. Not all police are corrupt, but their salaries are so low, they’re always looking for a way to supplement their income. Most did this by accepting bribes instead of citing citizens for minor infractions (the infamous mordida – little bite). This municipal cop, however, preferred his niche of being a street-level dealer. Fine with us.
Our first stop on the road trip were the campgrounds near the ruins of Palenque. We spent two nights and a day there, exploring the ruins by day and smoking weed, making tea with magic mushrooms, and getting scared shitless by the nighttime jungle noises (howler monkeys are the worst). After that, we spent a day and night at the far-more-spectacular much-more-remote ruins at Calakmul. No tourists, just half-excavated ancient Mayan ruins near Guatemalan border. Our next destination, quite by accident, was the most interesting. To break our trip to Cancun, we took a very long detour and stayed in Xcalak, a tiny fishing village, more Caribbean than Mexican, with brightly painted wooden shacks, no grocery stores, and electricity only half of the day. As we drove into the pueblo, though, it was impossible not to notice that almost all of the shanties had a new motorcycle or car parked in front. Satellite dishes protruded from almost every roof. When the power was cut at night, the town came alive with the distinctive hum of Honda generators. Curious, indeed, in this rural, poor, and isolated part of the country. We soon found out from the owner of a local bar why there was a hotspot of prosperity in what was the dirt-poor southern Yucatan Peninsula. About a year before, a boy playing on the beach discovered large plastic bundles washing ashore and fetched his mother to have a look. They were packed tight with pure, uncut, Columbian cocaine. Apparently a passing speed boat was spooked, perhaps by the Mexican Navy which is traditionally tasked with coastal drug interdiction, and the drug-runners tossed their cargo into the sea. Soon the whole town was on the beach harvesting the good fortune.
There is no part of Mexico untouched by the drug trade. As mentioned, it is the world’s most lucrative business enterprise, and the world’s richest country, with the highest percentage of per capita illegal drug users, as well as the world’s highest gross consumption of illegal drugs, is just a stone throw to the north. One could hardly expect anything else.
Why Drug Wars only Adds Fuel to the Fire
Nobody is bootlegging moonshine anymore. Harry Browne, the philosophical leader of the Libertarian Party and its one-time presidential candidate said it best. I’ve used this quote (and also Hegel’s) perhaps too much in other works regarding the subject, but if there is one quote that bears repeating, indeed that should be memorized by all policymakers in both America and Mexico, this is it:
There are no violent gangs fighting over aspirin territories. There are no violent gangs fighting over whisky territories or computer territories or anything else that’s legal. There are only criminal gangs fighting over territories covering drugs, gambling, prostitution, and other victimless crimes. Making a non-violent activity a crime creates a black market, which attracts criminals and gangs, which turns what was once a relatively harmless activity affecting a small group of people into a widespread epidemic of drug use and gang warfare.
These lessons of history, when compared with the available empirical data on illegal drug use, can only lead to one reasonable conclusion: criminalizing individual drug use is not only asinine, it is also ineffective, harmful, and outrageously expensive. The answer is legalizing drugs, while taxing and regulating sales, as we do with the drugs of alcohol and tobacco. But I do not pretend that this would be an easy task. If a government overtaxes and overregulates a particular drug, making it economically prohibitive to purchase legally, consumers will turn to the black market. If, on the other hand, taxes and regulation are reasonable, the consumer will easily avoid the risks of black market purchases and purchase through legal channels, even at a premium price. Thus, in the end, public drug policy is really about balancing various interest in order to find a formula that works, as is done with alcohol and tobacco, acknowledging that a utopian ideal will never be reached, and a certain percent of the population will always abuse certain substances.
Pouring more than a trillion dollars into a lost cause with the remote hope that drug use will be reduced is the ultimate in naiveté. And what is more (and more obvious) is that this strategy has been proven, convincingly I think, to have been an enormous intellectual swindle, just as the prohibition of alcohol was, while the competing strategy ─ the liberalization of drug prohibition laws through legalization, regulation and control ─ is the only proven game in town for those who are actually serious about addressing the problem of drug addiction, drug-related violence, public health and other socioeconomic problems facing modern societies. Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing but expecting different results. Under this definition the global war on drugs is insane.
Other experts agree. On September 11, 2014, while the news cycle was understandably dominated by remembrances of the 9/11 attacks, the Global Commission on Drug Policy quietly published its report Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work. The Commission members agree that the War on Drugs is bad public policy doing far more harm than good, but also that ending the War would also mean the beginning of the end of drug-related violence worldwide, noting specially that the War has fueled crime and enriched criminals, undermined development and security, threatened public health and safety, and wasted billions of dollars, all while sabotaging national economies. Not exactly a stellar track record.
The next potentially paradigm-shifting event on the horizon with regard to the global war on drugs is the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS). The U.N. has traditionally been pro-strict enforcement, but in the face of the massive body of evidence against this approach, it will be fascinating to see what unfolds.
About year ago we were living in Playa del Carmen, operating a small Italian restaurant on the famous Avenida Quinta. On one long summer weekend my wife made plans with another mom and a gaggle of kids to visit a water park in Cancun. Not my kind of thing, so a friend and I decided to drive south to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere reserve. We bought some pot in the uber-chic beachside resort village of Tulum (not to be confused with the archeological ruins or the scruffy pueblo further inland) where the world’s great unwashed backpackers share the beautiful beach with the jet-set crowds from Hollywood and New York. The drive south was slow and bumpy, but gorgeous beyond description, with the Delaware-sized UNESCO World Heritage reserve to our right, and the crystalline Caribbean sea to our left. We had no air conditioning in the rickety old Jeep we had borrowed, and the jungle was literally steaming. Luckily, just outside the southern terminus of the peninsula there is a small village (Punta Allen) that supports a few hundred people with a dive center and some sport fishing. Soaked through with sweat and caked with road grime, we stumbled upon a shady palapa near the water where an old man was selling tacos de bistec, and thankfully, ice-cold Indio beer. There was also an onshore breeze. It was a nice place to spend some time. The tacos were delicious and the beer was ambrosia.
We chatted with the old man. His face looked like a black leather catcher’s mitt. His had clearly been a hard life. There was a sad, silent, indigenous air about him, but he opened up, like locals tend to do when a Spanish-speaking Gringo shows some interest in their lives. He, like almost everyone else in the village, was a fisherman before the Riviera Maya became a tourist haven in the 1970s. As a young man he enjoyed a simple life. His father taught him how to fish and there was always enough to eat: tropical fruit grew in abundance, fish were plentiful, and sometimes they would kill a deer. With the influx of tourism came an increase in commercial fishing however, and his family could no longer compete. His wife died years earlier and he now made his living selling tacos and doing odd jobs. He said he had two sons and a daughter. They wanted a better life. His daughter works as a hotel maid in Cancun, and one son is a bartender at a Playa del Carmen resort. He looked down and pretended to be busy arranging things on his taco cart. “And your other son?” I asked. He hesitated for a moment. “He left to work in Texas four years ago, in Brownsville. I haven’t heard from him.”
I stumble over my words and change the subject.
Were Paco’s son alive, even if he never made it to his destination, he would have wired some money, or at the very least telephoned. He was undoubtedly one of the 26,000 Mexicans who have been “disappeared” since 2006. Intended migrants are favorite targets of the cartels; they are used as drug mules, or slaves, they are coopted or lured into the trafficking business with promises of avarice, or are simply robbed and killed. Fosas clandestinas – clandestine mass graves – are discovered almost daily, sometimes through investigation, often by chance: the stink of death and disturbed soil noticed by neighborhood kids.
We drove back to Playa del Carmen in silence, deflated. I’ve always been prone to bouts of depression, and I could feel another one creeping up behind my eyes, my world darkening. It is the poor people who suffer in the drug wars in Mexico and the United States, the marginalized, those without rights. The top Mexican drug bosses live in opulence, as do many of the politicians in their back pockets. In a nation where 45 percent of the population live below the poverty line, some 37.6 million people survive on less than five dollars a day. It should not be surprising that there is an endless supply of poor young men to act as soldiers and smugglers for the drug cartels; these are the ones gunned down in the street or imprisoned, not by-and-large the kingpins and their acolytes. In the U.S., too, rich people are rarely arrested and imprisoned for drug possession or trafficking, for that matter; that privilege is almost exclusively reserved for the poor, the disenfranchised, the powerless, despite the fact that illegal drug usage among income levels and ethnicity is essentially the same.
We drove in silence and I ruminated. Suddenly my restaurant seemed like a waste of my life. Selling lobster raviolis and huitlacoche fritters to sunburned vacationers seemed pointless and jejune, as did my obsession with food. My biggest worry was where my restaurant ranked on Trip Advisor. It was at that moment that I began to think about going back to writing and teaching. I am economically poorer for the decision, but academia keeps pulling me back, and I’m glad for it.
This asymmetrical low-intensity war in Mexico has all of the unthinkable brutality of ISIS in Mesopotamia: videotaped decapitations, people being burned alive, raped, dismembered, enslaved. Add a good dose of corruption, where poorly paid local police can significantly supplement their incomes by cooperating with certain cartels or local gangs, and you have a recipe for chaos. Chaos fed by the outrageous profits of the drug trade, in turn fueled by the unyielding demand for drugs by Americans.
The war closest to home is in Mexico: a triangulation of warring cartels competing for lucrative trafficking routes, with governmental policing entities sometimes brutally, and futilely, trying to stop them, or as is often the case, actively helping them for profit. The war at home is simpler and only two-sided. It is a war prosecuted by the government against the poorest and most vulnerable of its own citizens. Both are morally defenseless and pernicious wars against virtually defenseless people. Neither are necessary. Both are counterproductive and inhumane.
We should stop this nonsense. But the inertia built up over decades, with the sticky tentacles of federal, state, local and international agencies, each with its hand in the cookie jar, are formidable foes, perhaps even insurmountable ones. But alas there is hope, although I am not convinced that a rational, pragmatic policy is not really possible within my lifetime. Views are slowly changing about drug use and abuse, with a definite trend evincing changes in drug policy at the state level, particularly with respect to the decriminalization of cannabis. If this trend continues, and the marijuana fear is debunked, as it surely will be, then there is hope. The legalization of cannabis in Colorado, despite the hysterical predictions of the usual Conservative anti-drug crusaders that the state would become a zombie apocalypse, can only be considered a success measured by any metric you like. Eugene Jarecki’s 2012 blockbuster documentary The House I Live In confirmed what academics and researchers have been saying for decades: the War on Drugs has never been about drugs. Most recently, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari, showed us, in a riveting narrative, that our own popular understanding of drug addiction swims in a putrid sea of pseudoscience and misinformation. Together with the Global Commission of Drug Policy report, this makes powerful and increasingly agreed-upon body of evidence against this horrific public policy.
I originally wrote this piece in late 2014, where it was submitted to a magazine editor before finally being rejected after a few months with the comment, “we like this piece but it just doesn’t work for us at this time.” It languished on a spare USB drive as I worked on other things, and I only rediscovered it searching through my scattered library of unpublished work to include on this blog.
Since then, some important events have unfolded. Enrique Peña Nieto from the PRI assumed office on December 1, 2012. He is not a popular president, but no Mexican president has been popular in modern times: accusations of cronyism, nepotism, corruption, inefficiency, and wildly inappropriate priorities stick to Mexican presidents like feathers to tar. But drug violence quieted down significantly. People began going out again, starting businesses; universities initiated programs in business and entrepreneurship, and young people embraced technology, and once again, hope. The Mexican inteligencia and polemicists began the task of evaluating Peña Nieto’s predecessor’s policies on the Mexican drug war. How could Calderón, a smart man educated at two elite Mexican universities (a bachelor of laws and a masters in economics) followed by a Master of Public Administration at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, have so seriously botched this purblind drug war? How could he have possibly thought that military force could be used effectively against an endemic social and economic problem? (Calderón actually fired entire police departments and sent in soldiers, who were not trained for and knew nothing of policing, let alone investigating crimes.) Under his tenure rural communities in parts of rural Mexico, especially in border states like Chihuahua, became essentially lawless vestiges of the old Wild West.
Under Peña Nieto’s tenuous tenure, infrastructure spending increased dramatically, fueled in part by state revenue from high oil prices, increased foreign direct investment, and once-again growing tourism. The attitude of hope, of looking forward to a better future, was palpable. It lasted for 21 months, until September 26, 2014, when 43 student protesters from Ayotzinapa were kidnapped in the state of Guerrero by the police of Iguala, turned over to the local drug gang Guerreros Unidos, and murdered. Prompting Freedom House to declare Mexico 1st place for the worst human rights developments in 2014.
It was a surprise punch in the gut to Mexican society. Days of quiet, morose disbelief were followed by the catching of a collective breath, and then massive street protests in Mexico City, Iguala, and elsewhere throughout the Republic. The ham-fisted response from many Mexican legislators was to propose amending the Mexican constitution to ban public protests.
In the United States, we seem to be learning, slowly, too slowly, that a massive criminal enforcement approach to a minor public health problem is exactly ass-backwards. The evidence, after all, is overwhelming in this regard. Smaller and more nimble jurisdictions like Portugal, the Netherlands, and many U.S. States, have or are in the process of reversing course, to great effect. North America, though, with close to a half billion residents, continues to struggle under the inertia of a massive bureaucracy, sometimes happily, sometimes haltingly, committed to the status quo.
In the wake of the latest terrorist attacks in California, it occurred to me that although I study and write about religions as they relate to a broad spectrum of public policy, I hadn’t quite made up my mind about the above proposition. As an atheist, my instinct is to side against religion. But instinct by definition is not reason. And there are plenty of secular humanists and fellow atheists who disagree with me on this specific issue.
So I decided to do more digging and engage in an oddly schizophrenic, but in my view eminently useful, conversation with myself, taking up the secular apologist cause in explaining why and how violent jihad can be stripped from its Islamic underpinnings. I then in turn refute, or attempt to refute, these arguments, also from a secular perspective.
On September 17, 2001 President George W. Bush started a political neologism by proclaiming that “Islam is peace.” Since that time, every American administration, and almost all elected politicians worldwide have made similar pronouncements in an effort to separate the Islamic faith itself from acts of the most ghoulish barbarity committed by some of its adherents. It is, of course, easy to understand why: telling the truth might have meant alienating 1.6 billion people, almost a quarter of the world’s population professing a religious faith. (Indeed, it might have added fuel to the fire for those Muslims who advocate for a global holy war.)
Soon after Bush’s inane pronouncement, many academics and liberal progressives picked up on the meme, joining the administration in this claim (the oddest of bedfellows). The Muslims who commit these acts, the martyrs who detonate themselves in markets, on buses, in hotels, restaurants and shopping malls, are cast either as “not true Muslims” (a derivation of the No True Scotsman logical fallacy), or nihilists (the most recent and oddest accounting). Or simply politically and economically oppressed Muslims, too weak to fight a conventional war against Western imperialists and usurpers, who are therefore using terrorism for political reasons only tangentially connected to religion.
The arguments are not implausible, but I was still puzzled because, on the other hand, it seemed to me that Muslim terrorists are primarily motivated by their faith. If this is true, wouldn’t it be better, then, to call a duck a duck, say that Islam has a problem, and support Islamic reformers? The results of burying our collective heads in the sand has been that terror and tears continue to plague us, and many (if not most) Muslim reformers have been shouted down, threatened, exiled, murdered, or in other ways silenced. If it is not true, conversely, then the best response might be – I know not what. The military approach, by almost all accounts, has been an abject failure, and in my view has done far more harm than good.
But let us see – my tentative conclusions could be wrong.
The reader should note that the confines of this essay, in order to be as comprehensive as possible within a reasonable word limit, is limited to terrorism, and does not address other aspects of whether Islam is a religion of peace such as Islamic support for the poor, hospitality and sharing, a wide body of world literature, Sharia law, honor murders, genital mutilation, the killing of apostates and infidels, the subjugation of women, the suppression of free expression and dissent, etc.
Arguments and Refutations
The arguments that Muslim terrorism is unconnected or only tangentially connected to Islam takes many forms and can be stated in different ways. The arguments below are presented in italics, followed by the refutations in normal typeface, and have been distilled down to the following: (1) an entire religion should not be condemned for the acts committed by fringe extremists; (2) terrorists are driven by other reasons such as political ideology rather than religious theology; and (3) there is a double standard in so much that terrorism is employed by radical elements of other religions but it is seldom if ever recognized as such, while Islamic terrorism is singled out.
As a last note before the curtain of reason is opened and the show begins with the First Act, I have made a good faith effort to argue as persuasively as by own cognitive limitations will allow in favor of the above three broad propositions. I put forth no straw men, and I would be willing to bet that some readers who agree with the three propositions will remain unconvinced after having read my refutations.
Argument 1: Painting with too broad a brush
Why do some want to condemn an entire faith with over 1.6 billion adherents for the admittedly heinous acts of a tiny majority of extremists?
First, “extremists” according to Gallup (defined as those who (a) think the 9/11 attacks were justified and (b) have an unfavorable opinion of the United States) only account for about 7 percent of Muslims. If that sounds like a lot, consider a couple of things. The poll was only conducted in 10 countries, and in some Muslim countries, like Morocco, only 1 percent of Muslims qualified as extremists. Also, notice how Gallup defined extreme to include Muslims who have an unfavorable opinion of the United States. Many people have an unfavorable opinion of the United States, even many Americans. If one were to define “extremists” only to include the first group, undoubtedly the numbers would be even lower. More pointedly, of the small percentage of Muslims who might be considered “extremists,” how many of those would be willing to act on those views? The numbers must surely be infinitesimally small.
Second, of course extremists – of all casts – tend to have the loudest voices, giving the impression that they are more prevalent and more influential than they actually are. Despite the poll’s flaws, Gallup admits that it debunks the notion that terrorism enjoys wide support in the Muslim world, noting that, “Not only are those who sympathize with terrorist acts a relatively small minority, but the most frequently cited aspect of the Muslim world that Muslims say that they admire least is ‘narrow-minded fanaticism and violent extremism.’” After a terror attack, why do you think that there are so many condemnations of violence from the Islamic community?
Third, all religions have extremist fringe components. Catholics like Timothy McVey and Christian members of the Klu Klux Klan in America have committed acts of terrorism, as have radicalized Hindus and Sikhs in India, as have Catholics in Rwanda and Orthodox Christians in Bosnia. (More on that below.) One would be surprised if Islam did not have radicalized adherents.
Finally, although this may be slightly beyond the strictures of the argument, we should put things into perspective. The tiny number of Islamic terrorists who actually carry out acts of violence should be compared to the very few people who have been killed by terrorists since 9/11 along with those killed by other means. For example 19 Americans were killed in terror attacks in 2013, compared to 10,000 by drunk drivers, 53 by bees, and 23 by lightning strikes. From September 11, 2001 through 2013, a total of 3,380 Americans have been killed in terror attacks, compared to 406,496 firearm deaths (homicide, suicide and accidents). In fact, according to the FBI, between 1980 and 2005, only 6% of terror attacks within the U.S. were carried out by Islamic extremists.
Will America’s response be yet another invasion of an Islamic country, more drone strikes, serving only to further radicalize more Muslims? As Malala Yousafzai has said, “With guns you can kill terrorists, with education you can kill terrorism.”
Islam is a grand religion with a rich history of scientific achievement, architectural beauty, charity, literature, and provides comfort, hope and fraternity to billions of people. It shouldn’t be condemned by ignorant people who think that a tiny minority of misguided sociopaths who claim to be Muslim speak for true peace-loving Muslims.
Well, let me start with what I think is largely irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion. Is Islam a “grand religion”? I don’t think so, but then again I don’t think any religions are grand, or even good; indeed I think religion is a cancer on societies, which perhaps I’ll address later.
There is one broad area where we agree, and that is another military adventure in the Middle East would be the worst of all possible responses to terror attacks, and indeed counter-productive if history is any guide. (Hegel may have been right when he said that we learn from history that we do not learn from history.)
With that minor throat clearing out of the way, let me point to why your argument must fall, and by its own weight.
While it is true that terrorism “only” claimed 19 American lives in 2013, globally it took the lives of almost 18,000 innocents. That is no small number. And let us not forget that history did not begin on September 11, 2001. Your clever use of the FBI database from 1980 to 2005 hints a bit at obfuscation. So 6 percent of attacks were carried out by Muslim extremists, but this would have had to include the 9/11 attacks. The more relevant question would be: how many people were actually killed or wounded by jihadists? Incidentally, since 9/11 some 74 Islamist terror plots have been foiled – cold comfort I submit. But playing the numbers game is largely point-missing for the obvious reason that is evades the topic under debate: Why do some want to condemn an entire faith with over 1.6 billion adherents for the admittedly heinous acts of a tiny majority of extremists? So let us move on from this digression (we can debate the entirely unrelated topics of traffic safety and gun control another time).
This question to be completely coherent must be broken down into parts. First, what do the numbers actually represent? And second, are these extremists really “extreme” within the Islamic faith?
The first sub-question is easier to deal with; you haven’t quibbled excessively with the Gallup poll, so neither will I. Let’s low-ball “Muslim extremists” at 1 percent of the population. That’s 16,000,000 extremists. Again, no small number. And let’s say 1 percent of those would be willing to act on their extremism. That’s 160,000, and scary, when you consider how many innocent people one extremist can kill with a single car bomb or a few magazines of automatic rifle cartridges.
The second part (whether jihadists are in fact “extreme” under Islam) is both more interesting and more difficult. The best answer is – it depends on who you ask.
So I looked at three Muslim scholars’ views which seem representative. According to Reza Aslan, Islam in neither a religion of peace nor violence – it’s just a religion. His essential argument is that people take their values and culture to their religion, and interpret their religion through that lens, not unlike the KKK in America, an organization which maintains both its Christianity and its overt racism and violence. Tariq Ramadan, by contrast, insists that Islam is a religion of peace, and jihadists have misinterpreted the call for jihad literally instead of as an inner struggle. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (a terrorist with a PhD in Islamic studies) has a different view:
Islam was never a religion of peace. Islam is the religion of fighting. No one should believe that the war that we are waging is the war of the Islamic State. It is the war of all Muslims, but the Islamic State is spearheading it. It is the war of Muslims against infidels. O Muslims, go to war everywhere. It is the duty of every Muslim.
This presents us with a bit of a problem: When Muslim scholars, Muslim leaders, and average Muslims themselves can’t seem to agree on the correct interpretation of the Qur’an, how are non-Muslims to decide? Or as Christopher Hitchens has said, “Who am I to adjudicate?” One could argue that Islamist terrorists and ISIS – the most literal interpreters of Islam – are the true Muslims and other nominal Muslims are simply misguided un-Islamic pseudo-fakirs. (Again, who is the true Scotsman?)
As any religious historian can tell you, all of the holy books of the Abrahamic faiths are oral stories of semi-literate Bronze Age desert dwellers cobbled together hundreds of years after the events they purport to describe; they are all chalk-full of vagaries, internal contradictions, inconsistencies and outright immoral ideas, as one might expect. This largely explains why there are no less than 5 Jewish sects or “movements,” more than 35 different Christian denominations in the United States alone, and 5 major sects within Islam (and many more minor ones, each with their separate schools of jurisprudence and divinity). Each, of course, believes that their interpretation is the correct one, and each can point to specific scriptures which support their interpretation. In the case of Islam, these schisms often lead to violence comparable to the horrors found within the Pentateuch. As Hitchens said in God is Not Great (pps. 123-24), “The Koran is borrowed from both Jewish and Christian myths,” and “If one comprehends the fallacies of one ‘revealed’ religion, one comprehends them all.”
So no, all Muslims should not be condemned for the acts of a few extremists. But that most salient fact carries with it a troubling but necessary question of its own: Are these Islamist jihadists committing acts of terror really “extreme” or are they simply following the commands of their holy book? As I said, it depends on who you ask.
Argument 2: The West caused terrorism through imperialism and the oppression of Muslim peoples, which is why terrorism is driven more by political ideology and less by Islam
Let us imagine for a moment a different world. A world in which the richest, most powerful country on our little blue dot of a planet was a conservative Muslim one. Let’s call it Islamalandia. It has the largest standing armies and navies in the world. It is rich beyond imagination, except for one thing: petroleum. The United States and Britain are comparatively poor, have no navies, and their armies are small, poorly trained and ill-equipped. But in the alternate universe, they have lots of oil. Islamalandia – to ensure political stability and the flow of oil – for centuries continually meddles in the internal politics of the U.S. and Britain: participating in coups, installing friendly dictators and puppet governments, invading and dividing the U.S. into different political areas without regard to religious and ethnic concerns, dropping bombs as felt necessary, and wantonly exercising Machiavellian Realpolitik at will. Much of the U.S. and Britain are occupied by Islamalandia’s forces, and are forced to concede parts of their territories for Islamalandia military bases. Unconcealed racism is rampant, and people with white skin are routinely discriminated against, ridiculed, caricatured, and mocked in the media. Islamalandia imposes its religious and political ideals of sharia law within its empire. The U.S. and Britain have no hope of fighting this giant.
Would not American fundamentalist Christians, Catholics, Jews and English Anglican Christians resort to terrorism? In doing so, wouldn’t they claim that they have license to do so in the name of their gods to keep the Islamic menace at bay?
The point is obvious: we caused Muslim extremism.
Where were Islamist acts of terror before the U.S. and Britain ham-fistedly exercised there imperialist ambitions in the Middle East after WWI?
Is it a coincidence that terrorist attacks escalated dramatically after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan? The primary cause of terrorism is feckless and immoral foreign policy by Western powers. It’s not difficult to see the causal connection.
To answer your first question, I don’t know if Christians would resort to acts of terror, though I tend to doubt it, and hope never to have to find out. Your second question is easier to answer: Islamic extremism and terrorism goes back to the 7th Century Kharijites. Muslims have been killing each other in sanguinary feuds, killing apostates, killing infidels, since the founding of the religion.
I wouldn’t want to, and haven’t, claimed that Islam is the only cause of terrorism, but rather it is the prime cause. True, academicians, think tanks, writers and intellectuals have come up with a plethora of alternative, some competing, some complimentary, explanations: western foreign policy, group pressure, socioeconomic frustrations, political ideology, a rebellion against modernity, the abuses of kleptocracy, and according to Thomas Piketty’s recent musings, income inequality, to name a few. I was surprised to find that the competing theories are not only encyclopedic in their breadth, depth and scope, but also grasping and largely point-missing. It could conceivably be one, all, or any combination of these things. Omitting religion as a prime causal factor, though, I think could only be described as an intentional fatuity.
It’s not as if Islamic terrorists are exactly shy about stating their motivations. Why not go to the source?
Jihadists say they commit acts of terror for religious reasons. They’re unambiguous and explicit in crediting both their motivation and success to Islam. Ihsanullah Ihsan’s statement is typical: “[o]ur animosity is based on religion. We hate Americans for their secular ideology.” Find a jihadi waxing on about group pressure, poverty or foreign policy. You won’t find many. But you’ll find thousands of examples of terrorists giving purely religious reasons their acts of terror.
Is there some reason we should not believe them? Are they so self-deluded that they don’t even know why they’re doing what they’re doing? Apparently many people think so, but this seems to defy credulity.
Which brings me to your second question: In the same or similar circumstances, would Christians do the same? We need not speculate. History has already given us a pretty convincing answer, as Sam Harris pointed out recently in an interview for Salon. When asked about colonialism and the portioning of the Middle East after the First World War, I can do no better than quote his response at length:
But the religious lunacy and tribalism was already in place—and that is why the West’s careless partitioning of the region was so problematic. I agree that the history of colonialism isn’t pretty. But the example you raise just proves my point. In fact, this practically became a science experiment that dissected out the crucial variable of religion. There are (or were) Christians living in all these beleaguered countries. How many Christian suicide bombers have there been? Where are the Pakistani, Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, and Palestinian Christians who are blowing themselves up in crowds of noncombatants? Have there been any? I’m guessing there must have been a few, but the Muslim supply of such people is apparently inexhaustible. In every case, we’re talking about the same people, speaking same language, living in the same places, enduring the same material deprivation. In fact, the Christians of the Middle East have it worse. They’ve not only suffered the legacy of colonialism, they’ve been hounded out of their countries and often killed outright by their Muslim neighbors—and they still haven’t organized themselves into a death cult. What’s the difference that makes the difference? Religion.
We can also look outside the Muslim world to see that mere injustice and inequality rarely produce such destructive behavior. Many countries in Latin America have legitimate grievances against the U.S. Where are the Guatemalan suicide bombers? Where are the Cherokee suicide bombers, for that matter? If oppression were enough, the Tibetans should have been practicing suicidal terrorism against the Chinese for decades. Instead, they practice self-immolation, for reasons that are totally understandable within the context of their own religious beliefs. Again, specific beliefs matter, and we deny this at our peril. If the behavior of Muslim suicide bombers should tell us anything, it’s that certain people really do believe in martyrdom. Let me be very clear about this: I’m not talking about all (or even most) Muslims—I’m talking about jihadists. But all jihadists are Muslim. If even 1 percent of the world’s Muslims are potential jihadists, we have a terrible problem on our hands. I’m not sure how we deal with 16 million aspiring martyrs—but lying to ourselves about the nature of the problem doesn’t seem like the best strategy.
Argument 3: Critics of Islam who blame the religion for terrorism are hypocrites: there are plenty of examples of Christian acts of terror but it’s seldom called that in the media
Ancient, contemporary, and modern history are rife with acts of terror by Christians in the name of Christianity, but you curiously never see it couched in those terms. I can mention two recent ones: the war in the Balkans, and the near-genocide in Rwanda.
I see that you’re a fan of Harris and Hitchens. With regards to the Balkans war, did not Mr. Hitchens mention in god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (p. 22) that “the extremist Catholic and Orthodox forces were colluding in a bloody partition and cleansing of Bosnia-Herzegovina. They were, and still are, spared the public shame of this, because the world’s media preferred the simplication [sic] of ‘Croat’ and ‘Serb,’ and only mentioned religion when discussing ‘the Muslims.’” He goes on to say that “confessional terminology was reserved only for ‘Muslims,’ even though their murderers went to all the trouble of distinguishing themselves by wearing large Orthodox crosses over their bandoliers, or by taping portraits of the Virgin Mary to their rifle butts.”
The atrocities committed against a civilian Muslim population by Christians for religious reasons would be a perfect opportunity to “call a duck a duck” to use your phrase.
In the same book (pps. 190-93) Hitchens in some detail tells the story of the Catholic Church’s collusion in the massacre of the minority Tutsi population by the majority Catholic Hutus in Rwanda. As Hitchens tells this macabre tale, it begins in 1987 when a Catholic visionary called Little Pebbles begins seeing visions of the apocalypse, bloody massacres, and the eminent return of Christ (these visions oddly coming from the Virgin Mary). The Church investigated the appearances of the apparition of Mary on a hilltop and concluded they were reliable. At the given moment in 1994, the massacre of the Tutsis began. Frightened Tutsi and dissident Hutu sought refuge in churches, and the interahamwe relied on priests and nuns to point out where the targets of the massacre were hiding. Father Weceslas Munyeshyaka was smuggled out of Rwanda with the assistance of French priests, later to go on trial for war crimes for providing lists of civilians to the interahamwe, among other acts of collusion. Sadly, equally culpable in the atrocities, Bishop Misago, escaped justice, with one official in the Rwandan Ministry of Justice saying, “The Vatican is too strong, and too unapologetic, for us to go taking on bishops. Haven’t you heard of infallibility?”
As of this writing, despite intense pressure, the Church has never apologized for the role of its clergy in the Rwanda massacres. Ironically, after every Muslim terrorist attack, we see peaceful Muslims in the streets and on social media saying, “This is not us! We abhor radical jihadists! This is not Islam!”
Of course there are ubiquitous examples of radicalized Jews committing acts of terror on peaceful Muslims, not to mention the bombing or attacking of abortion clinics by American fundamentalist Christians, equally illustrative of the double standard. I’ve never seen a headline that said, “Christian Terrorist Attacks Clinic.” Are these people not also motivated primarily by their religion?
Forgetting the method of killing a terrorist might employ for a moment, this seems to poke some holes in Sam Harris’ question, “How many Christian suicide bombers have there been?” I submit: quite a few, actually.
Finally, if you go back a bit in time, Christianity in its various permutations has been responsible for horrific crimes against humanity – do you not remember the crusades, the inquisitions, the burning alive of apostates, the beheadings and torture of non-believers?
Let me begin by saying that this line of argument is something of a non sequitur. If I were to concede everything, I would have conceded nothing. It does not follow that if adherents of other faiths commit acts of terrorism because of their faiths, Muslims do not.
Now let me concede something more substantive: the religious (Christian) aspects to the violence and atrocities in Bosnia and Rwanda were seldom discussed by the media – they should have been, as they played important roles. But once that has been said, we’re still left essentially where we started.
Indeed, I think you over argue your case. Hitchens used these two examples to buttress his thesis that religion poisons everything. He did not argue that religion was the root cause of these atrocities, or that Christians are compelled by their scriptures to commit them. His central point throughout the chapter from which you draw these examples, is that religion does not only not make people behave better, but often makes them behave worse. He did not indicate, nor even intimate, that religion in these two case studies were the prime factors in the atrocities committed, but rather, important factors in a mix of ethnic tension, politics, and historical animosities, adding fuel to the fire, if you will.
Second, it has never been claimed that the majority Roman Catholic Hutus were somehow an oppressed class and resorted to mass murder as defense mechanism, as some claim is the appropriate rationale in explaining Islamic jihadism. Indeed, the Rwanda situation has been explained quite adequately in terms of political and ethnic grounds. (Which of course is not to say the Church’s role wasn’t shockingly complicitous and revolting.) Bosnia is a better case for Christian terrorism, but there, too, religion was one part of a complex mix of history, geography, ethnic tension, and political ambition. Both of these stains on humanity could have been committed, and would have been committed, in the absence of any religious motivations. The same can’t be said of Islamic terrorism, and thus, I think Sam’s question stands untouched.
Your last point regarding the past atrocities of Christianity is an important one. Christianity underwent several reformations. Islam has not. Christianity – with the notable exception of some fundamentalist sects mostly in the United States – has (begrudgingly and all-too-slowly) accepted science, and in doing so has had to concede great swaths of its theological underpinnings. Islam is anti-science. Christianity has accepted the principle of the separation of church and state. Here, too, Islam has not. Harris has a salient point to make on this as well: there is no concept in Islam of “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s.” Perhaps as importantly, the Church has apologized for many (by no means all) past wrongs and injustices – either through overt action, silence or sanction – perpetrated by it or by others. Islam has not, and being that it claims to be the final and unimprovable word of Allah, and no further knowledge is either needed or desired, it is hard to account for how it could.
The reader of course will make her own conclusions. Mine is this.
All Abrahamic religions – as well as many other religions – are bad inasmuch they are quite demonstrably man made but purport to be the word of an omniscient god. But they’re not all bad in the same way, and some are worse than others.
Islam has a problem. A problem that cannot be easily explained away by the mental gymnastics it takes to account for Islamic terrorism in lieu of the elephant in the room – the teachings of Islam itself.
I understand the reasons politicians proclaim that Islam is a religion of peace and has been hijacked by radicals or “nihilists.” It is much more difficult to put one’s finger on why so many of my fellow atheists, progressives, and secular humanists with no dog in the hunt, make the same claim. They can be viciously critical of other religions such as Christianity, or religion in general, but are silent on Islam. Or worse, side with the jihadists, and label people such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or Bill Maher racists, bigots and Islamaphobes. But they save their worst vitriol for moderate Muslim reformers themselves such as Maajid Nawaz, a former member of a radical Islamic group, who has co-written a book with Harris. The most curious case must be that of Glenn Greenwald, a homosexual Jewish atheist who not only routinely defends radical Islam, but attacks those critical of Islam with ad hominin diatribes (one of his assistants even calling Nawaz a “talking monkey”). Leaving the Jewish issue aside, surely Greenwald must know that he and his husband would not be long for this world if they were to move to one of the 10 predominantly Muslim countries (all in the Middle East or North Africa) where homosexual acts are punishable by death.
Could it be that progressives (Nawaz refers to them as the “Regressive Left”) would be too uncomfortable finding themselves on the same side of an issue (for obviously different reasons) with Christian neoconservatives? This seems to be the primary complaint Chris Hedges has about Harris and his fellow intellectual travelers, but that wouldn’t explain how these otherwise very bright public intellectuals could be so intellectually unserious, if not dishonest, on this single issue. Alternatively, Douglas Murray is of the opinion that since the end of the Cold War the Left has been in short supply of fascists, racists and bigots – too few to maintain their own political identity – and so have turned to cannibalizing their own. There may be other theories out there as well. My own guess is that the secular but nonetheless de facto apologists for theocracy have drunk too deeply from the Liberal ideological trough, which is fed from the spring of egalitarianism – that we’re all basically the same, with same potentials for success and failure, and our successes are more often due to luck or the enjoyment of advantages that others don’t have, and likewise our failures are due to disadvantages not within our control. A slight simplification, but only slight. When applied to religions, and more specifically Islamic jihadists, one can see how easily it is to slip into the Pavlovian impulse of defending those who have and which have, been historically oppressed and manhandled by the ham-fisted geopolitical machinations of Western powers. If this, too, does not fully explain this dichotomy, then I am left wondering.
Is there hope one day that Islam can credibly claim that it is indeed a religion of peace? Sure, but if it happens, it will be a long, slow, painful process. It took Catholicism centuries to become the paper tiger that it is today. Hitchens has said that because Islam is the youngest of the Abrahamic faiths, it is also the most insecure, and therefore also the most fundamentalist. For reasons mentioned, Islam doesn’t have within its toolkit the important principle that secular government can be separated from religion. This is an obstacle, but then again there are examples of peaceful forms of Islam to draw inspiration from. The Islamic practitioners of Sufism, for example, are primarily motivated by the spiritual and not literal (and thus often detested by the devout).
Be that as it may, I believe one thing is certain. There is nothing to be had worth having by looking to Islamic or secular apologists to confront the problem of Islamic terrorism. Nor is another feckless military intervention proposed by Chickenhawks on the Right. Malala was right, and her words bear repeating: “Guns can kill terrorists, but education can kill terrorism.” If there is any education to be had, it must come by way of Muslims from within Islam itself. Which means reformers like Maajid Nawaz, and others, must be given a voice and not be shouted down by the Regressive Left playing a political game at the expense of global security and respect for human rights.
Rich people tend to be assholes. This is not an uninformed personal opinion. It’s actually supported by studies and empirical evidence. But apparently in the genre of milquetoast opinion journalism, it is a step too-far.
I was mildly reprimanded, and told my work would be subject to review by the full editorial board before any future publications.
I cannot convey my disappointment enough. It was crushing, really. Why wasn’t I blacklisted? That I could live with. That would be a badge of honor – it would say that I’ve stepped on the gout-swollen toes of a great American plutocrat.
I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better next time. As a polemicist, I suck.
On January 3 of 2015, my op-ed article “How becoming super-rich turns you into an A*hole”, after having been posted for only a few minutes, was taken down and I was banned from posting new op-eds without the explicit clearance and approval of Digital Journal staff, who wrote in an email:
You…included a photo of Donald Trump in an article about ‘rich assholes’ which not so subtly links him to your headline, and that is also the kind of association we want our writers to avoid. That’s not the professionalism we look for in a Digital Journalist…we can’t have such childish and potentially litigious material on our news network.
The staffer hiding behind the moniker “Digital Journal Staff” at least gets an “A” in reading comprehension, although a little remedial work in media law is surely warranted.
My response, therefore, was:
As a law professor who teaches constitutional law, I can tell you that calling someone an asshole, especially a public figure, is not ‘slanderous’ by any definition. In fact, it is an opinion than cannot be objectively be proven either true or false. While the piece may have been edgy, under no reasonable intrepretation [sic] could it be considered slander. Any lawyer, Canadian or American, will tell you the same. If your fear is litigation, there is a 0% chance of that happening. Digital Journal, like all other publications, explicitly and clearly does not endorse op-ed opinions, I take it especially ‘childish’ ones.
As a middle-aged, balding, paunchy man who teaches and writes for a living, personal and professional rejection has become a part of life I have necessarily developed an immunity to. But as a week passed, and as I worked on other things, the rejection pulled at me, and puzzled me. On further reflection I thought “asshole” might have been too coarse a word, causing an unintended antiphonic reaction among a reader who possibly flagged the article as offensive. So being a nice person (really), I offered to rewrite the piece, deleting the arguably undiplomatic language.
They were having none of it: “We aren’t interested in republishing that older article.”
Fine, but remember I haven’t been blacklisted. Yet.
Of course it is not at all difficult to conflate “rich person” with “asshole” and come up with an algorithm spitting out the notoriously thin-haired, and equally thin-skinned, Donald Trump. Remember, The Donald sued Bill Maher for satirically suggesting he had been fathered by an orangutan (the likeness is quite uncanny, actually).
In fact, when I input “rich assholes” into Google Images, Trump was the first to pop-up followed by Mitt Romney, so the eventual image of the snarling Trump I uploaded could hardly be said to have been inaccurate or misrepresentative.
Becoming super rich changes you, it may even change your brain. It transmutates otherwise normal people (let’s say your nondescript contractor neighbor with the comb over) into a horse’s ass (let’s say, er, Donald Trump). I’ve always intuited this, of course, but now there’s evidence. (Incidentally, Google Images also quite heavily samples Donald Trump in response to the query “bad comb over.”)
We humans desire, we want to consume, we want to accumulate wealth, we want our children to have better lives than we do. It’s human nature, and capitalism doesn’t just acknowledge this, it embraces it; capitalism, like the Devil himself, is a fan of man.
According to Credit Suisse, the richest 1 percent of the global population own almost 50 percent of total global wealth. Oxfam published research that the world’s richest 85 people share the combined wealth of the world’s poorest 8.5 billion people.
There are conflicting studies about whether money can or cannot buy you happiness. (Not surprisingly, investment magazines and other money media outlets cite the former.) I have been both rich, poor, and in between. When I was at my richest – in private law practice in California – I was also at my apogee of unhappiness. At my least-rich, teaching English in the rural hinterlands of southern Mexico, I was quite content. This does not at all seem odd to me, as “money can’t buy happiness” has long been a staple colloquialism in the English vernacular, and one which rings true.
But money can almost certainly buy you assholeness (I claim to have coined that word – yes I’m talking to you, Merriam Webster). I only know two things: being poor sucks (a largely undisputed proposition), and nobody cares if the super wealthy are happy, a dare say not even the super wealthy. So, where does that leave us? If money can’t buy you happiness, it can surely mold you into a better person.
Michael Lewis, author of the bestseller Flash Boys published a piece in the New Republic in November of 2014, since republished elsewhere, entitled “Extreme Wealth is bad for Everyone–Especially the Wealthy.” In it, he reviews academic research relating to happiness, wealth, and how there is some evidence that the latter alters the brain, for the worse. But Lewis, in mining the dusty academic journals, finds that this doesn’t work either. For starters, he analyzes the work of Brookings Institution scholar Darrell West, saying:
Drawing on the work of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, West notes that the concentration of wealth in the top 1 percent of American citizens has returned to levels not seen in a century. One percent of the population controls a third of its wealth, and the problem is only getting worse: from 1979 to 2009 after-tax income for the top 1 percent rose by 155 percent while not changing all that much for everyone else.
Okay, so wealth is concentrating, as is poverty. Nothing new there. Nothing I, as well as others, such as Paul Krugman and Thomas Piketty haven’t said before. As it turns out, being wealthy is just about as useful to being a decent human being as being double-jointed. After the party’s over, no one will remember that you could touch your foot to your nose.
But there must be some emotional, or spiritual, or moral (or anything else) benefit in accumulating such unspendable-in-a-lifetime wealth. Why would so many people be otherwise so hell-bent on it? Can’t it make us better persons? We know we can’t take our billions with us (hearse’s don’t have luggage racks for a reason), and leaving a few million, even a hundred million, for our kids really seems quite adequate. So surely there must be a good, higher reason for this almost uniform, parsimonious desire.
There are perfectly explicable social and biological basis for greed, but that does not bestow legitimacy on it, just like we men are genetically programmed through evolution to spread our DNA as far and wide as possible by copulating as many female as our species as we can get our hands on, is still not very likely to go over so well with our wives.
As it turns out, excess accumulation of wealth is more prone to reduce, not enhance, moral character, producing personality characteristics more dickwadish (that one’s mine too, Merriam Webster) than enlightened.
Here’s where it gets fun. As Lewis describes, a U.C. Berkeley’s psychology professor Dacher Keltner supervised an incredibly dull study carried out by graduate students (somebody had to do it), who stationed themselves on city streets to observe traffic habits. People driving expensive cars were the most disrespecting of traffic laws, ignoring pedestrian right-of-ways, double parking, and generally exhibiting an indifference to traffic rules. In another Berkeley study, rich study subjects were more likely to steal candy (clearly labeled for children only) than poor subjects in the same study.
It gets worse.
Rich people are more likely to cheat at games, even trivial ones. And the richer one becomes, whether in imaginary currency or not, the higher the probability of cheating. I have to shamefully admit I have cheated in family Monopoly games when I came into lucky, and sudden wealth, crushing the dreams of my eight year old daughter. (It’s so easy to distract and trick kids with even a clumsy slight-of-hand – just ask the GOP which shamelessly convinces the middle class to vote against their own interests with simple sophistry.)
In yet another study, the New York State Psychiatric Institute found that the rich shoplift significantly more than the poor. To add insult to injury, poor people are more altruistic as well. People earning less than $25,000 a year give away, on average 4.7 percent of their income. Their rich (usually distant) neighbors earning more than $150,000 year give away barely 2.7 percent.
Of course this leaves us with the classic causation question: Does extreme wealth cause people to become assholes, or rather are assholes just more likely to become wealthy? Clearly, the only way to know is to perform a long term double-blind study measuring a group of kids with asshole personality characteristics against others with normal characteristics to see if there is a correlation between these inimical personality traits and wealth. Alas, however, it may be a moot point: by the time such a study could possibly bear fruit, the 99 percent will be picking fruit for the 1 percent, the middle class having been completely eliminated from the gene pool.
We’re all prone to the impulse for economic gain, but some less than others. Lest someone think I am critical of the rich and powerful out of some secret envy, I can assure you that this is not the case. I find business boring. I’ve tried to engage in entrepreneurship, but simply can’t get the fire to ignite. Brainstorming ways to improve balance sheets, to market products nobody really needs, to create brainless social trends, seems nightmarishly jejune to me. Spending one’s life accumulating massive amounts of wealth, while almost 3 billion of your fellow Earthlings are struggling to make it on less than two dollars a day, shouldn’t make you an object of admiration, or any kind of role model. It is, in my view, the worst possible kind of unexamined existence, perhaps only being topped by psychotics and sociopaths. For me, having a bevy of Rolex’s in my closet has about the same appeal as having a collection of rectal warts: don’t want ‘em.
I am not naïve enough to think that the super-wealthy will be going away any time soon. In fact the economic trend line suggests that they will continue to get richer while the middle class will continue to melt away into the increasingly isolated, dystopian societies of the poor – the great unwashed walled-off, segregat&ed from their genteel plantation owners, who are happier left alone to sip mint julips and compare yacht lengths (no metaphor intended).
If you’re one of the rich and are now aware of this phenomenon, the very least you could do is make a concerted effort not to be an unremidiated douchebag. Considering that you already rule the world, it doesn’t seem like that’s asking a lot.