By Sam Harris, Norton, 2004, 0-39303515-8

Develops evidence that moderation in religion gives way to extremism. If we deny the existence of the supernatural, we give no room for extremism. Islam is worse than Western culture, because it promotes the death of infidels, much as Christianity does. However, Islam still implements its edicts (honor killings). Last chapters lost me. Especially on torture so I wrote him this note:


Thanks for the incredibly deep and rich book. Possibly the most eye-opening question for me was: Can we say that Middle Eastern men who are murderously obsessed with female sexual purity actually love their wives, daughters, and sisters less than American or European men do? The book made me think differently, thanks.

I was, however, disappointed by your treatment of torture. To me, the use of force – physical or mental – is an ethical question that must be resolved within the context. There are two questions: is force ethical and what force should I apply?

In war, force is generally ethical. However, this is predicated on the fact that the war itself is ethical. Some simple “facts” about our intention to go to war in Iraq have yet to be proven true. This puts into question whether the U.S. Government’s choice to use force was ethical. Unlike your news anchorman on p. 94 (who works for Fox or NPR, btw?), the U.S. Government’s credibility depends on its ability to prove its accusations. It hasn’t, and as such, makes the entire case for the use of force in Iraq, and thusly Guantanamo, built on shifting sands.

You furthermore make some interesting leaps of faith in the following statement: “There, after all, no infants interned at Guantanamo Bay, just rather scrofulous young men, many of whom were caught in the very act of trying to kill our soldiers.” We actually don’t know who they are holding in Guantanamo. What is missing is that these folks (male or female, young or old?) were captured in foreign countries, which we attacked, and none of those countries citizens had actually attacked ours; it was 19 Saudis who killed 3,000 people on our soil. One could argue those folks had an ethical right to defend their country. If someone walks into your house with a gun, do you have the ethical right to attack first? Yes. Furthermore, we haven’t even bothered to take Osama Bin Laden to court in absentia.

My doubts are not that Islam is a violent religion, or that we have forced terrorism on us. Rather, we have failed to prove the case for the use of force, and thusly torture.

Leaving the yes/no question aside. How much force should we apply? Torture is but one means to an end. Deception is another – as your escapade in Prague suggests. The question of the ticking time bomb is posed too narrowly. We can use deception and other forceful means of extracting information from the unwilling, including simulating torture of the unwilling’s family. I would argue that simulating physical torture is better than actually inflicting it.

When someone attacks you, you feel anger. Torture is as much a means to extract information as it is a way to extract vengeance. Capital punishment is a form of legalized torture in the U.S. It is implemented after the information is extracted, and its victim has been proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. It’s primary purpose is for vengeance. The U.S. military in Afghanistan, Iraq, Cuba, and ??? are not above anger, and likely have been using torture as a means of vengeance.

Finally, there is a relativist dimension to force. It comes down to “Lord of the Flies” ethics, if you will. If you use force, you bet others will against you. Moreover, if you use force on an innocent, you may have created an enemy, a new convert to the faith of hate. That may be strategically inept. For if you do use force on an innocent, and you indeed find out he is innocent. You must let them go – in my ethics. If the force has made them psychotic – an unfortunate and unpredictable side-effect of torture – and that person clever and resourceful, you may end up creating an even bigger disaster on your hands.

If you analyze the situation in Iraq, you may find that this is precisely what has happened. Many otherwise peaceful and innocent and non-extremist Muslims are now taking up arms. This is not an ethical problem, but a strategic one caused by extremely poor tactics. Force is a tactic, not a strategy, and the U.S. Government seems not to have a strategy at all in its recent wars.

One last comment on your comment on a cold war with Islam. Pakistan has nuclear weapons and is Muslim and is in a cold war with India. One distinguishing feature of Islamic leadership is a strong sense of self-preservation as Al Sadr – among others – has clearly demonstrated. They don’t “eat their own dog food” as much as you think they do.

Again, thanks for a book that changed the way I think about things.

Cheers, Rob Nagler

[p105] Although not a single leader of the Third Reich–not even Hitler himself–was ever excommunicated, Galileo was not absolved of heresy until 1992.

[p128] It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martydom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a centure perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradis, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? [Why hasn’t Pakistan used the weapons? It’s because those in power don’t actually believe what the preach. That’s an important data point.]

[p155] One wonder whether [Roy] Moore, [John] Ashcroft, the U.S. Congress, and three-quarters of the American people would like to see the punishments for breaking these hallowed commandments also specfied in marble and placed in our nation’s courts. What, after all, is the punishment for taking the Lord’s name in vain? It happens to be death (Leviticus 24:16). What is the punishment for working on the Sabbath? Also death (Exodus 31:15).

[p176] When was the last time that someone was criticized for not “respecting’ another person’s unfounded beliefs about physics or history? The same rules should apply to ethical, spritual, and religious beliefs as well. Credit goes to Christopher Hitchens for distilling, in a single phrase, a principle of discourse that could well arrest our slide toward the abyss: “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” Let us pray that billions agree with him.

[p182] Respect for diversity in our ethical views is, at best, an intellectual holding pattern until more of the facts are in.

[p188] Augustine, for instance, when considering the moral stature of virgins who had been raped by the Goths, wondered whether they had not been “unduly puffed up by [their] integrity, continence and chastity.” Perhaps they suffered “some lurking infirmity which might have betrayed them into proud and contemptuous bearing, ahad they not been subjectoed to the humiliation that befell them.”

[p189] Can we say that Middle Eastern men who are murderously obsessed with female sexual purity actually love their wives, daughters, and sisters less than American or European men do? Of course, we can. And what is truly incredible about the state of our discourse is that such a claim is not only controversial but actually unutterable in most contexts.

[p194] Rather, it seems obvious that the misapplication of toture should be far less troubling to us than collateral damage: there, after all, no infants interned at Guantanamo Bay, just rather scrofulous young men, many of whom were caught in the very act of trying to kill our soldiers. [Endnotes]

[p244] 12. Compare much of what Jesus taught with the above quotation from John 15:6, or with Matt. 10:34–“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” For a remarkably elegant demonstration of the incoherency of the Bible, I recommend Burr’s Self-contradictions_of_the_Bible (1860).

[p249] 51. […] Consider the statement of the Roman Catholic primate of Poland, August Cardinal Hlond, in a 1936 pastoral letter: “There will be the Jewish problem as long as the Jews remain. It is a fact that the Jews are fighting against the Catholic Church, persisting in free thinking, and are the vanguard of godlessness, Bolshevism, and subersion … It is a fact that the Jews deceive, levey interest, and re pimps. It is a fact that the religious and ethical influence of the Jewish young people on the Polish young people is a negative one.”

[p275] 31.[…] To assert that there should be no “experts” in morals – as both Kantians and anti-Kantians tend to do – is, on my account, rather like saying that there should be no experts in chess, perhaps adducing as one’s evidence that every party to our discouse can plainly see how to move the pieces. We need no experts to tell us how the matter stands; nor do we need experts to tell us that cruelty is wrong. But we do need experts to tell us what the best move is from any given position; and there is little doubt that we will need experts to tell us that loving all people, without distinction, makes one happier than feeling preferential love for one’s intimates (if this is indeed the case).

[p276] 34. […] There is a difference, after all, between intending to inflict suffering on an innocent person and inflicting it by accident. To include a suspect terrorist’s family among the instruments of torture would be a flagrant violation of this principle.