April 28, 2011

Militant Islam and U.S. Policy

The present relationship between militant Islam and the United States can be explained in terms of two basic human traits. The first is the belief in out-group homogeneity. The second is an irrational reliance on hope.

Out-group homogeneity can be neatly summarized by the classic bigot’s dictum – “Those people are all alike.” It is the belief that one’s perceived enemies are people with a uniform set of characteristics and motivations. In other words, our enemies are not individuals with unique personalities like ourselves; they are just a homogenous mass, each interchangeable with any other. They are people in some raw physical sense, but they are not persons like we are.

It is clear from their public statements that Al Qaeda’s leadership takes the stance that all Americans and other western peoples are a monolithic mass. They hold us collectively responsible for a variety of offenses against Islam. Their argument is that we elect our leaders, and are therefore collectively responsible for the actions of our governments. To kill any westerner, then, is to strike a blow in defense of Islam. If I were to assume that every Muslim shares this position, I would be indulging in a belief in out-group homogeneity myself. It is never quite that simple. In all likelihood, there are many more Muslims who vaguely sympathize with Al Qaeda than there are actual potential suicide bombers. It is also almost certainly true that the vast majority of Muslims care more about the immediate problems of their daily lives than they do about their grievances with distant foreigners. Only a very few fanatics live and breathe ideology; most people spend their energies on issues nearer to home.

Unfortunately, knowing that Muslims are individuals does not make the conflict between their culture and ours disappear. It is true that most Muslims, and particularly most Arabs, do not like us. Their reasons vary. Some focus on our unquestioning support of their enemy, Israel. Others resent the assortment of corrupt dictatorships we have nurtured within the Muslim world. The more devoutly religious hate us for desecrating their holy lands with our mere presence. There is, in fact, very little reason that many Muslims should like us. Their culture and ours are antithetical. Nevertheless, neither party is in a position to ignore the other. We are trapped in a mutually distasteful and unwanted embrace. We need the oil under their lands to fuel our way of life. They need the goods that they can ultimately exchange for that oil to support their growing population. They hold a power over our economy that we resent; we distort their societies in ways that they resent. It is only the pursuit of self-interest that has bound us together.

U.S. policy toward the oil producers of the Middle East has until now been fairly simple. From Franklin Roosevelt through the second Bush administration, our policy has been to support pliable authoritarian regimes in the region, and ignore the Arab populous whenever possible. Heartless as it may sound, it is pointless to be morally indignant about such policies. No nation I am aware of makes a habit of putting the interest of a foreign populous above its own national interests. Other great powers have propped up dictators and created puppet regimes. In our quest for oil, we have only pursued the most effective option left to us in a post-WW2 political climate that abjures brute conquest or other people’s sovereign lands and resources. A policy of supporting dictators has often proven successful, at least in the short term. It has only failed when an authoritarian partner overstepped his acceptable limits (as Saddam Hussein did in Iraq) or when he became excessively burdensome to his own people (as Mubarak did in Egypt or the Shah did in Iran).

Shows of international altruism and human fellowship offer an alternative approach. While such policies have a nice progressive feel about them, we should not be fooled. They are almost always motivated by some political gain, either international, domestic, or both. This strategy of friendly gestures appears to be the course the Obama administration is undertaking with Islam. Our president has made conciliatory speeches in Muslim capitols, has charged NASA’s chief administrator, Charles Bolden, with the incongruous task of Muslim outreach, and has taken a relatively cool stance toward Israel. The obvious inference is that he is trying to make friends among the Muslim public, particularly the Arabs, rather than continuing the age old policy of manipulating their resources through local authoritarian regimes. Here we have “the audacity of hope” expressed in actual doctrine. Nice though it may seem, it is difficult to have much confidence in this approach.1 People with long standing grudges are not easily swayed by words or gestures. They require real substance -- if they can be swayed at all. At this point in our history, an American president would probably need to sever our alliance with Israel entirely to make any popular headway in the Arab world. Whether one is a fan of Israel or not, one must agree that cutting them adrift would not be likely to improve stability in the Middle East. They, too, are a legacy America is stuck with.

The best that Obama’s sweet talking can hope to achieve internationally is to nudge some little fraction of non-committed Muslims a few inches toward our cause. Our cadre of crooked local rulers knows the game, and doesn’t need the public relations overtures. The fanatics of Al Qaeda and its affiliates are obviously well beyond the reach of anybody’s secular charm. The only words that interest them were written in the 7th century. A young Muslim with no future, fervent faith, and nothing better to do with his life than to end it in an explosion, is unlikely be halted in his tracks by Obama’s measured show of friendship. Bin Laden offers paradise; Obama offers nothing but his questionable charm.

The president’s gestures make a greater impression domestically, however. They serve to infuriate and terrify the American conservative base. Americans of most stripes believe in out-group homogeneity too. While friendly diplomatic overtures cheer liberals, who want to see Muslims as essentially just misunderstood (if perhaps uncomfortably misogynist), the same policies leave conservatives in an apoplectic fume. “These are the people who attacked us on 9-11!?” they shout -- as if every Muslim in the world, all 1.5 billion of them, were personally complicit in the attack. Having seen this attitude at first hand many times, I believe there is very little short of the exhaustion of war that would moderate such views.

The exhaustion of war, unfortunately, is very likely what we shall have. Whatever one may say about the hardened bigotry that exists on both sides, the fact remains that the Middle East still has the largest concentration of the world’s oil reserves, and America will not tolerate the consequences of losing that supply for the sake of either moral principle of international law. Like it or not, a widening general war between the west and Islam appears all but inevitable. The opening moves are now well behind us. Given the religious, cultural, and in most cases even racial differences, the conflict to come is bound to be a very ugly affair. With so much a stake, it is bound to also be long. A miraculous softening of popular sentiment would, of course, be welcome -- but I do not expect one.

1 Venezuela’s Hugo Chaves attempted something similar by offering poor Americans free heating oil. This, at least, was a substantial material offer, but nevertheless failed to create any pro-Venezuelan sentiment worth noting.

April 12, 2011


When I was a child, I was introduced to the story of the passenger pigeon. About the size of a dove and rather nondescript in appearance, this bird was once so common that its flocks could fill the sky. It was hunted to extinction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, largely to provide cheap meat for cities in the eastern United States. As a boy of five or six, I saw the stuffed bodies of several passenger pigeons at the Cincinnati zoo. There was also a bronze statue of the very last surviving pigeon, who had died at the zoo in 1914. The zookeepers had named her Martha. A tiny stone building housed some stuffed examples and a few pictures as a sort of memorial gesture. I remember looking up at the desiccated, dusty specimens in the display case, trying to imagine that they had once been alive. They were as inanimate as corn husks. Thinking about this pigeon holocaust, back in the distant past before my parents had been born, was enough to bring a tear to my eye. “Human beings are cruel and thoughtless,” I concluded then and there. I was ashamed of my species.

I am long since grown. I have almost forgotten the age when I had no idea there was any difference between emotions and the truth. I rarely cry over anything now, least of all dead pigeons. Nature doesn’t change because we have certain feelings about it, and neither does it stay the same because we want it to. If we want to see nature as it really is, we have to put aside our notions of how we feel it ought to be.

Facts are simply facts. All wild animals (and probably most tame ones too, including people) spend their lives in one long quest for food, mates, and security. Each individual will die. There are no exceptions. Sooner or later, either the probabilities of predation or accident will catch up with you, your food will run out, or you will succumb to old age or disease. This is nature. I do not now believe that the last passenger pigeon suffered in any special way that ordinary pigeons don’t. Martha, the last of her kind, lived, probably had good days and bad days in some unknowable pigeon way, and died. Individual animals know happiness and suffering; species do not. In the same way, individual human beings know suffering – while nations do not. It is each of us that possess the fleeting quality of being alive – it is never the collective.

Nature isn’t kind to species. The various forms of plants and animals arise through the inexorable processes of biology. Some are well adapted to their circumstances and thrive for a time. Others, that are less well adapted, decline and disappear. This is evolution. It is nature in actual practice. Our hubris as humans is that we have settled on the peculiar idea that we are not a part of nature – that we are somehow above the process looking down. This is nothing but make-believe and human chauvinism. Like Martha, we are born, we live out our measure of summers and winters, and we submit to the permanent dissolution of our consciousness in death. This is nature too.

We now may be more numerous than passenger pigeons ever were. We are unusual animals, to be sure, with our technology and social complexities, but we are subject to natural limits whether we like them or not. We thrive under conditions that are favorable to us and will decline when those conditions become unfavorable. We just happen to be dynamic enough, and numerous enough, to drive many other species into extinction. Humanity, from a neutral point of view, is like a swarm of locusts or a bloom of algae. Collectively, we are an enormous, sudden and spectacular natural event. Individually, we are just hungry, restless, inquisitive animals. Civilization is neither a noble march of progress nor an environmental evil. It is just what biology makes it. Like locust swarms and red tide, it is a population event – something that expands to meet its natural limits and then subsides. We are neither a threat to the processes of biology as a whole, nor are we the custodians of those processes. Nature is not our friend. Nature is not our enemy. It is the context in which each of us exists, even if we never see the ocean, a wild animal, or a tree firsthand.

The emotion that I once felt for the fate of the passenger pigeon may have been intellectually misplaced, but it certainly was real. The fact that our feelings do not change reality to suit us doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Hearts, too, are natural things. Whoever decided to call the last pigeon Martha did so with some sense that she was a being, an animal with life and a mind, and not an inanimate lump of bronze like her statue. We may be subject to nature in every respect, but we are not just mechanisms. We have the capacity of awareness, and the most fundamental things of which we are aware is that we are alive and conscious, and that other beings around us are alive and conscious too. To look into the eye of a stuffed specimen in a display case is to see only a body – but to look into the eye of any living animal, be it a pigeon or a human being, is to be aware of a mind, however unreachable or alien. We see an unmistakable reflection of ourselves. We experience, directly, what life is.

It is when we begin not to see people and animals as beings that we descend into a mere mechanical existence. Perhaps what we should remember about the passenger pigeon is not that we drove them to extinction, but that we mined them as unfeelingly as though they had been a seam of coal. We treated them as things, and to that extent we became mere things ourselves.

Life on Earth is not going to end because we snuff out the existence of a group of birds with a certain pattern of plumage, or a type of fish with a certain number of stripes. The biosphere has recovered from more egregious insults than we are likely to inflict. Our actions are unlikely to put an end to photosynthesis, sexual reproduction, the tetrapod body plan, lungs, wings, or any other of biology’s pivotal inventions. We will reshape the world. The damage that we do is almost all attributable to our exponentiating numbers, but it would be na├»ve to imagine that any individual is going to forsake reproduction, let alone existence, for the sake of a bird or a fish. Our collective trajectory will play itself out, a collection of forces too large for us to grasp except in fragmentary glimpses.

Martha’s little shrine is not an apology to nature. It is a monument to the irreconcilability of our compassion and our appetite. This is who and what we are.