Rationally Speaking

Massimo's other ramblings can be found at his Skeptic Web.

Massimo's books:
Denying Evolution
Tales of the Rational

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N. 62, June 2005

On Holy books

OK, so Newsweek made (probably) a mistake in reporting, based on an anonymous source, that US interrogators at the infamous base in Guantanamo Bay have desecrated the Koran, allegedly by flashing it down the toilet. Bad journalism, though no worse than what the American media have accustomed us to for the past several years. Even the use of anonymous sources is neither unusual nor necessarily a bad idea (Watergate might not have happened without the anonymous source famously referred to as "deep throat").

What is most interesting about the Newsweek debacle is the reaction of the US government, and perhaps even more so the underpinning of the widespread outrage at what the American weekly has allegedly caused as a result of its mistake.

Take the reaction by US government officials. The attack on Newsweek was all-out, with allegations of damaging American reputation with Muslims across the world. As if that needed any help since the Bush administration has gone to war on the basis of what turned out to be false information about alleged weapons of mass destruction; information, of course, provided by an anonymous source ("curveball"), and that former Secretary of State Colin Powell shamelessly paraded as "fact" in front of the United Nations.

It is in fact astounding, and more than a little worrisome, that the Bush administration is so eager to attack the press and use it as a scapegoat for its own foolish foreign policies. It is downright scary when so many right-wing media pundits are ready to jump on Newsweek for being "unpatriotic" (code word for doing or saying anything they don't like). It is funny (in a dark humor sense) when the magazine is labeled as part of the "liberal media conspiracy" (a convenient rhetorical fiction invented by the extreme right), even though Newsweek has ran plenty of stories that favorably covered the war on Iraq and the actions of the US military. It is dangerous when almost everybody (except an op-ed piece in the New York Times) ignored the statements of an American general (a member of the same military that Newsweek has allegedly purposely bashed and engendered) to the effect that the riots that killed several people in Pakistan had nothing to do with the publication of the incriminated article.

But let us consider the broader picture for a moment. Suppose for the sake of argument that the short, inaccurate, article in Newsweek really was the spark that led to murderous riots half a world away. In what reasonable sense are the author of the piece and editor of the magazine responsible for such a sad outcome? The reasoning behind the accusations raised against Newsweek is that we actually expect people to become violent because a book they care for has been flushed down the toilet. We may not (at least officially) condone such reaction, but we put the responsibility square on the shoulders of the journalists, rather than on the people who so easily resort to violence. You see, if not OK, it is at least understandable when religious zealots riot or kill to defend their twisted understanding of their faith. It must have been a similar feeling that prompted the former Pope, John Paul II (the one now being considered for fast-track to sainthood) to refuse to apologize for the Catholic Church's killing of Giordano Bruno in 1600. You know, Bruno may have been right about the fact that the earth is not the center of the earth, but after all, he was a heathen...

But wait! Isn't precisely this sort of religious intolerance that brought about the attacks on the US on 9/11 2001? There may have been reasons why the terrorists did it, and these reasons surely had something to do with American foreign policy in the Middle East during the past several decades. But reasons are not the same as justifications. The terrorists who attacked the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon were fully to blame for having decided that the way to resolve cultural and political conflicts is to kill innocent people. Similarly, the only culprits in the Pakistani riots are those religious bigots and overzealous security forces who went ahead and did the rioting and killing, regardless of what real or imaginary "offense" to their religion they may have used as an excuse for their senseless actions.

Here is another way to put the point. Imagine the headlines: "Creationists flush a copy of Darwin's Origin of Species down the toilet. Dozens killed in the resulting riots on university campuses." Of course, you will never see such a headline, except perhaps in The Onion. The reason is not just that not even the most ardent secular humanist actually regards Darwin's writings as sacred, but that the whole ethics of science and humanism is about tolerance for other people's views. To paraphrase Mel Brooks, a sense of humor is the humanist's best defense against the universe. Unfortunately, the one thing religious zealots seem to sorely lack is precisely a sense of humor. Yet surely God, the most perfect of all beings, appreciates a laugh here and there, even at Her own expense. After all, didn't she create the Platypus?