Category Archives: violence

Victory in Mosul

 

Mission Accomplished

What does victory look like? Donald Trump bragged about how he had helped the Iraqi forces defeat ISIS (or ISIL or IS as it is sometimes called). For convenience I will refer to them all as ISIS.  ISIS as we all know is not an organization of Sunday school teachers.

I suppose such a victory is what my American friend was looking for when he called for the American forces to “take out Iran.”

Mosul is Iraq’s second most populated city. In June 2014, much to their surprise, ISIS  captured Mosul as the government forces, trained and outfitted by the Americans, collapsed at the mere sight of the fearsome  ISIS warriors. Much to the disappointment of the Americans, the Iraqi forces abandoned all that fancy and expensive American equipment largely without a fight. Years of American training, advice, and money, created security forces that at the first sign of trouble folded up and left their military hardware behind.

The Iraqi government was dominated by Shia Muslims. ISIS was dominated by Sunni Muslims.   That made for natural enmity. It was in Mosul that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the beginning of their self-proclaimed “caliphate.” At the time the population of Mosul was 2.5 million people After ISIS ruled for more than 2 years those numbers dropped to 1.5 million.

ISIS had about 3,000 to 5,000 ISIS fighters in Mosul.  The estimates of their strengths varied widely. Many of them were not well trained and included teenagers, but because of their reputation for brutality they struck fear into the hearts and minds of Iraqis and westerners alike. Only the Kurds were keen on fighting them. About 10,000 were foreign fighters in including both Arabs and non-Arabs. The rest of ISIS fighters were Iraqi.

The Iraqi-led coalition that eventually drove out ISIS included about 100,000 Iraqi security forces, (ISF), 16,000 Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or PMU) 40,000 Peshmerga that included about 200 Iranian Kurdish female fighters from the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK). It was estimated that Peshmerga and ISF outnumbered ISIS fighters by about 10-1. The Kurds did  most of the fighting for the American military, until the US abandoned them at the end of 2019. The world was notified of that abandonment by a tweet from President Trump and it shocked the world. The Kurds were more shocked than anyone else, even though many people told them not to trust the Americans.

The forces against ISIS were supported by many countries, including Canada, but most importantly the United States. The assault to recapture the city of Mosul really started in October of 2016. The coalition forces inflicted severe pain on ISIS in that effort and because by then ISIS was totally embedded in Iraq, the local population also suffered greatly. As the above photograph makes abundantly clear, the “victory” of retaking Mosul from ISIS came at a horrendous cost to the city and the people who lived there.

The UN stated that ISIS had taken tens of thousands of civilians to use as human shields in Mosul. Those who refused to go were executed. Life (and death) was simple in Mosul.

Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition targeted ISIS positions, and ISIL started tire fires to reduce visibility. Heavy fighting occurred in the city. The city was “won” back from ISIS by hard block-by-block fighting.  Before the battle to take back Mosul was over, it was estimated that it would cost more than $1 billion to repair “basic” infrastructure in the city. This process would likely take years. Again looking at the photograph above that is hardly surprising.

 The UN also estimated that more than 5,000 buildings have been damaged and another 490 were destroyed in the Old City. During the battle Amnesty International accused Iraqi, Kurdish  and United States forces of using unnecessarily powerful weapons including MOAB the so-called Mother of All Bombs, the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in the world. Both sides damaged many religious sites.

The US accused ISIS of using civilians as human shields. It was confirmed that this happened and was widely condemned by human rights organizations.  The International Business Times reported that ISIS had forced boys as young as 12 to fight for them and that ISIS had trained the children to behead prisoners and make suicide bombs. Civilians were shot and deposited into mass graves in the city. ISIS also carried out retribution killings of civilians for welcoming Iraqi and Peshmerga troops.

The presence of Iraqi forces with several militias with histories of human rights abuses caused various organizations to criticize the US led coalition forces.  The International Business Times reported cases of Iraqi security forces torturing and interrogating young children for information about ISIS. On March 17, 2017 a U.S. led coalition air-strike in Mosul killed more than 200 civilians.  Amnesty Internationals reported, “The high civilian toll suggests that coalition forces leading the offensive in Mosul have failed to take adequate precautions to prevent civilian deaths, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.”

Kurdish intelligence estimated in July of 2017 that the total number of civilian casualties at the time were 40,000. The largest portion of this loss of life is attributable to the unyielding artillery bombardment by U.S. supported Iraqi government forces. The US-led coalition forces were one of the significant sources of civilian deaths.

Thousands of people had been forced to flee the country as a result of ISIS attacks and bombardment by U.S. led coalition forces.  Of course, many of these refugees were children. The refugees were not welcome in the Us as part of his Muslim ban. All sides were accused of violating human rights laws. About one day after victory was declared by Iraqi forces, Amnesty International accused both sides of violating international laws. The Iraqi forces, supported by the U.S. were accused of carrying out unlawful attacks using explosive weapons and failing to take necessary precautions to prevent the loss of civilian life and in some cases including disproportionate attacks.

An Associated Press investigation that cross-referenced independent databases from non-governmental organizations, claimed that 9,000–11,000 residents of Mosul were killed in the battle. It blamed airstrikes and shellings by Iraqi forces and anti-ISIS coalition of being responsible for at least 3,200 civilian deaths. The coalition on the other hand has acknowledged responsibility for 326 deaths. ISIS was held responsible for killing one third of the civilians out of the death toll. Both sides were brutal. As I said before, savagery was the chief legacy of the war in Iraq, not democracy as George W Bush an dDick Cheney had envisioned.

Official victory over ISIS was declared in July of 2017, but that did not stop further heavy fighting as ISIS continued to resist in the Old City of Mosul.

It has been estimated that removing explosives from Mosul and repairing the city will cost $50 billion over the next 5 years.

This is what “victory” looks like. It’s not a pretty picture. Who is looking forward to another victory in the Middle East?

Religious Violence

Our first day on the trip was incredibly interesting. To me travel is about learning. I love to learn about new and interesting places and people.

There was a lot of news this weekend about violent attacks by so-called domestic terrorists in the U.S.  Both incidents were deliberate attacks on religious groups. One occurred in New York, the other in Texas.

In New York a man was accused of stabbing 5 people with a gruesome machete at a Hanukkah party at a rabbi’s home.  It left the Jewish community in Monsey New York reeling, not only because of this attack, but because this was the 13th attack on Jewish people in New York in recent weeks.

In Monsey there was another attack, about a month ago, when a 30-year old Rabbi was attacked  on his way to synagogue just before dawn. It seems like Jews are under attack. Why is that? The alleged attacker in the most recent incident had a journal at home that contained references to Jews, anti-Semitism, and Adolf Hitler.  Internet searches on a phone recovered from his car included repeated searches for “Why did Hitler hate the Jews” as well as “German Jewish Temples nears me,” and “Prominent companies founded by Jews in America.”  Clearly, he had a special interest in Jews. Yet he has no known history of anti-Semitism and  according to a family member was “raised in a home which embraced all religions and races.” They also claimed he is not a member of any hate groups.

New York Mayor Cuomo was quick to denounce the crime as “an act of domestic terrorism.” President Donald Trump tweeted referring to the stabbing as an “anti-Semitic attack.” Trump also said, “We must all come together to fight, confront, and eradicate the evil scourge of anti-Semitism.” Of course, Trump ignores the fact that he has enabled haters in the past by statements such as his equating White Supremacists with people who resisted their venomous ideology. He claimed there were “good people on both sides.” Statements like that gave encouragement to the White Supremacists.

In a city called White Settlement Texas near Fort Worth a gunman identified as Keith Kinnunen who was unknown to the police, attended a church service at the West Freeway Church of Christ Parishioner Isabel Arreola said she sat near the gunman. She had never seen him before and began to feel uneasy about him when she thought she noticed he was wearing a fake beard as a disguise. Then she saw him take out a shotgun and starting firing. Abruptly within seconds members of the congregation approach the gunman and in fact one of them shot him dead with one shot.  Arreola said “I was so surprised because I did not know that so many in church were armed.”

In September the laws in Texas were changed to permit weapons in places of worship unless the facility bans them. This church was reorganized once the law was changed and now Texans are praising the effectiveness of the new law. Church security became an important issue in Texas after a previous gunman walked into a church in Sutherland Springs 2 years ago and fatally shot 26 people and wounded 20 others.

This time Texan parishioners believe that the church responder saved “untold lives.” I don’t know if the new Texas law is good or not. I know I was surprised when Texans took that approach after the previous attack. But it seems to have helped in this case. I always think a bunch of vigilantes are about as dangerous as a lone wolf domestic terrorist.

What really interests me about these 2 incidents however, is trying to understand what is happening in houses of worship that is putting parishioners at such risk. I always tend to think this is an American problem because it is such a violent society. But similar incidents have occurred in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, France, German and elsewhere.  Why is religion leading so much to violence? Are the perpetrators also led by religious zeal? What is going on in modern society? Does anyone know? I wish I did.

Our Boys: Judgement

 

One of the most interesting parts of the television series Our Boys, created by a Palestinian and Israeli team,   was the judgement of the court. It was read by an elderly Justice with stern cadences of belief in its truth. Yet, “the truth” was not endorsed by either side.

The judge noted that the days in Jerusalem after the kidnapping of the 3 Israeli boys had been tense. People gathered in frenzied crowds yelling “Death to Arabs.” 3 Jewish boys took this literally.  They were good boys from fine families. They were deeply religious.  The judge did not say it, but I will, they were “Our boys.” Though so was the young Palestinian victim and the 3 Jewish boys that had been kidnapped.

As the judge did say, “This was the shaft through which the 3 plunged into the dark tunnel of hatred and racism from which they emerged that night, yet the troubling thought persists from what well did the 3 drink such quantities of hatred and racism that blinded them so terribly that bashing and suffocating the head, and burning a human being created in God’s image, seemed to make sense? What did the defendants learn and internalize  at the various stages of their education and upbringing that enabled the unbearable lightness with which they took the life of a young Arab boy?” These are profound thoughts. But there is little evidence anyone paid attention. They were too consumed by hatred. Not long afterwards the country was plunged  into war—again.

At the end of the film we do not see justice. We do not see revenge? We don’t see the majesty of the law. Guilt is not important. The sentence is not significant. The mathematics of crime and punishment is false. All we see is a mother’s pain. Her son is dead and he was killed horribly. Nothing else matters. The mother’s pain is real and it endures. Nothing else endures. Nothing at all.

Our Boys: the Quest

 

 

I saw an amazing television series this year. It is powerful, disturbing, difficult to watch, and profoundly important. It is called Our Boys and is the fruit of an astonishing collaboration between Israeli writers, and Israeli and Palestinian co-directors. That brings a unique perspective that enriches this film. It is a perspective that is very difficult to find in the Middle East, where typically vicious certainties destroy  each other. That perspective is different from any other I have ever seen. I urge you to watch.

First I will give a caveat. Most of the film contains English Subtitles.  I don’t usually enjoy watching films with subtitles as I find them very distracting, but in this 10 series of shows the effort is well worth it. The series is based on a  true series of events in Israel and Palestine  in 2014 that led to a war in Gaza.

The series is based on 2 horrible real events. The first was the kidnapping of 3 Jewish boys whose plight ignited Israel, first in hopes and prayers for their survival, then when those hopes were dashed,  and the bodies of the boys were found, and then came the thirst for the nectar of the Middle East—revenge . after that revenge followed as inevitably as pee rolls down porcelain.

That of course called for more revenge. That’s how things work in the Middle East. Soon a 16-year old Palestinian boy was beat up and then gasoline was poured down his throat and he was burned alive.  It was a horrifying murder that mercifully was not depicted  in the series. Could good Jews have retaliated so gruesomely? The Israelis did not want to believe it. As one Jew tells the Simon the Jewish detective, “That’s part of the problem; that you think a Jew is incapable of cruelty to an enemy.”

The series included an actual recording of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making a speech at the funeral for the 3 boys.  He  boldly declared at the funeral, “A deep moral abyss separates us from our enemies. They sanctify death, while we sanctify compassion.” Is that true? Or a comfortable illusion? As Emily Nussbaum in her New Yorker review of the series aptly put it: “At its heart, this is a show about the brutal economics of empathy in a time of war: who gets it, who deserves it, who is denied it.”

A Rabbi was convinced that to fight the Palestinians they must retaliate in kin. After all they will do anything: blow up children, babies, and buses filled with innocent people, .The Rabbi said,  if one side is crazy the other side  must be irrational too. “It’s like mathematics. If one side is irrational and the other side not, strength does not matter. If the Jew operates irrationally and the Arab doe not, the Jew has power. If it’s the other way around the Jew loses. That is why 1 burned Arab boy is mathematically very good for the Jews.”  The Middle East is transfused with exactly such mathematical fanaticism.

An Israelis detective, Simon, was charged with responsibility to solve these crimes as soon as possible. The detective was relentless and brilliant, but his tenacity was not always appreciated by his fellow Israelis. Some of them did not want him to carry his torch to the back of the cave, particularly where religious and political zealots reside. The light is not always flattering.

The film focused on various groups from both sides in Palestinian and Israeli territory where citizens turn to fury soaked in religion that led to ugly and violent protest. In both cities, religious and political hatreds were fuelled by dehumanizing rhetoric that has horrible effects on young minds sadly open to toxic influence.  As Simon said, “You start arresting people for spewing hate and pretty soon half the country is in jail.”

The killers prayed to their god to send them a victim and praised God when he did. The young boy was a “gift from God.” After all if the young boy is not killed he will turn into a terrorist. Better to kill him first. In the mathematical logic of tit for tat it does not matter that the victim is innocent.

Unlike most American films which employ the simplicity of good versus evil, this series embraces complexity and eschews simple answers. Everyone should see this series available now on HBO. It is worth the effort.

Montreal Massacre: Not a Mad man

I watched the film Polytechnique as part of a local event reminding us of the Montreal Massacre of 30years ago. The film is a powerful re-enactment of the horrific event at the  Université de Montréal’s École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989.

There was an interesting disjunction that evening.  Our Member of Parliament, Ted Falk, failed to attend, but did send a written, well written in fact, comment. But in it he referred to the killer, who killed  himself when he was done, as a “madman.”  During the film the killer called himself “a rational person.”  This may surprise, but I think the killer was right. Our MP was wrong. He was not a madman. And that is the real chilling aspect of this case. He was not mad. He was not errant. He was the natural product of more than a century of male dominance. He was the logical conclusion of that dominance.

People who have power rarely give it up gently. In fact, people who have power see any opposition to that power as deeply irrational. It does not make sense, because their power makes perfect sense. They deserve the power. So invariably they believe. That is true of tyrants and it is equally true of ordinary male supremacists. They can’t even see the incongruity.   White male power is natural. Many even claim it is endorsed by God. Just goes to show you how irrational men can be.

All too often men who see their power slipping away react badly. Sometimes, as in the case of Marc Lepine, the Montreal mass killer, their resentment explodes into irrational rage.  No I don’t think Lepine was a madman. I wish he was. It would be easier to deal with than the truth.

 

Liberalism: A response to Extremism

 

I recently commented about the recent uncomfortable rise of violence inspired by religious fervor. This is not a new phenomenon. Our history is soaked in the blood.

The people of Europe have paid a hefty price in lives for disputes over religion. It is estimated that 1 million were killed in the Arian schism, another 1 million  during the Carthaginian struggle, 7 million during the Saracen slaughters in Spain, 5 million during the Crusades, 2 million Saxons and Scandinavians were killed resisting conversion to Christianity, and yet another 1 million  killed in Holy Wars against the Dutch, Albigenses, Waldenses, and Huguenots.  The cost of religion is high.

Of course in the Americas estimated again vary but some have suggested that 30 million indigenous people were slaughtered resisting the benefits of Christianity and perhaps 9 million burned as witches. Of cou8rse religion was usually not the sole cause for slaughter, but often it helped.

Much of Europe was devastated by the Religious wars of the 17thcentury. The conflicts culminated in the Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648. These were often religious wars at least nominally, but not entirely of religion. Of course we have to remember that these wars were fought by Christian countries and Christian princes. They were not wars against he infidels.  After the Reformation the various Protestant   Christian sects and the former universal Church—i.e. the Roman Catholic Church—were all eager for a fight. These were wars of Christians against Christians.

By the time the major wars of the 17thcentury were over, Germany which was the scene of much of the fighting, was ravaged and one-third of its people were killed. In some areas more than half the population were killed. For example the Swedish army alone destroyed 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns during its 17 years in Germany. For decades mercenary armies and armed bandits roamed Germany like a packs of vicious wolves slaughtering people like sheep.

Most of Europe participated in the wars. It began as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, but ended as a political fight over who would control Europe. Huge swaths of Europe had been scavenged bare and much of Europe by foraging armies. Massive damage was inflicted on churches, monasteries and other religious institutions. By the time the war was ending Catholic France joined the Protestant side because it feared the rise of Catholic Hapsburg power. Many of the European powers involved were bankrupted and famine and disease were rampant.

Although calculations vary, some counted the dead this way:  France and Austria lost 80,000 each, Spain 300,000, Sweden and Finland 110,000, German principalities 400,000. Other countries lost lesser people.

When the wars were over, or at least had subsided, most of Europe was understandably sick of religious wars. Nearly everyone agreed a better way was needed. After that with only minor exceptions, Christianity ceased to be an important motivator for mass scale murder. Someone should be thanked for that, but I am not sure it is God.

I would suggest that as a response to all of this slaughter an important philosophy arose: Liberalism. It is not supported enthusiastically in many places these days. That is a pity, because it is the anti-dote to extremism of all stripes.  And by liberalism I do not mean its bastard offspring such as the Liberal Party or even worse, neoliberalism.  But liberalism was a better way. British philosopher John Locke is often considered the father of Liberalism. He advocated for tolerance, which really means respect for others even if you disagree with them. The world at the end of the 17thcentury and then again at the end of the 20thcentury was in short supply of tolerance. It still is.

The Reformation and the problem of religious minorities were central to Locke’s political philosophy because those were the burning issues (literally burning issues) of his times. Until then this was not an issue at all because values were shared. Everyone in Europe was a Roman Catholic. Until then the issue of minority rights did not arise for there were no minorities.

But after the Reformation and the bloody wars that followed in its wake political theorists had to figure out how can we live together in a society when we don’t all share the same values? That is a problem that continues to haunt us today, as can be seen by the recent spate of religiously inspired murders in the last year.

According to University of Manitoba Professor, Steve Lecce, the key question of modern and contemporary political theory is “How should we live together in society when we don’t all share the same values?[1]Where values diverge, as they now inevitably do in any post Reformation society, and in particular in modern societies that include immigrants from around the world, how can we live together in peace and harmony without resorting to might is right or without resorting to the ability of the majority to crush the minority? Liberals say that there are some things the majority or the powerful should notbe able to do. First we need a method of settling disputes fairly. Fair tribunals such as courts of law. The state has to be like a referee or umpire.

This was very important in the Reformation when religious freedom was the critical issue of the time. It is still important. Until the Reformation a common religion bound us all so that this was not an important issue. Religion until then was the social glue that kept us together. After the Reformation, religion became an explosive issue that could blast society apart. And it often did and continues to do. Before the Reformation religion was the basis of societal trust.  After the Reformation religion became an instrument of distrust. We still live in this post-Reformation world.

There were 2 possible solutions to this problem of religion after the Reformation:

 

  • A religion can be imposed by force to achieve religious unity. This was tried with great vigor in the religious wars of the 17th The result was great misery and abject failure.
  • The second possible solution is the radical idea proposed by Liberals like John Locke–toleration. That had never been tried before. It was truly deeply revolutionary. It is important to remember this when modern liberals are often seen as dull and boring theoreticians. They are considered bloodless. Now we should realize that is a good thing. In the 18thcentury this idea was profoundly revolutionary. Many hated the idea of tolerance because they saw it as capitulation to evil.  Liberals said we had to accept differences.

 

Nowadays toleration, a value that was revolutionary in its day, and I would submit, is revolutionary today, can seem like very thin gruel compared to the spicy virtues reflected by much more aggressive and powerful groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, the alt-right, Antifa, Donald Trump, and their ilk. It can seem wishy-washy just like–well—liberals. It can seem humble. I think that is a good thing. The classic liberals like John Locke stand for permitting others to have their say. This is much less sexy than threatening to ban them, or build a wall to keep them out, or kill them. However, in a world charged with the most vicious of religious hatreds like that of Europe in the 17thcentury or our current world in the 21stcentury, tolerance is not wishy-washy at all. After all the 17thand 20thcenturies were the two most violent centuries in the past 500 years according to Steven Pinker. [2]Tolerance is the most vital of all the virtues! Liberals have to step to the plate with vigor and confidence. I would suggest that liberals actually represent our only chance for civilization to endure.  At least so liberals believe. And I tend to agree (in a wishy-washy way of course).

In the 17thcentury there were those who feared the worst from this revolutionary new idea of tolerance.  Would this not lead to the destruction of public morality?  Personal morality should never be permitted to undermine public morality, it was widely believed. This in fact is the essence of Conservatism! It is stillthe essence of Conservatism.

Liberals challenge this view. Liberals hold that we can each freely have our own personal opinions and morality without challenging the social order or value of society. Let people disagree. We can all get along provided each of us accepts limits. This will not destroy society. In fact modern liberals believe that the diversity of modern society will strengthen not weaken society. That means that we must put reasonable limits on our religious values too. We can hold them personally as much as we want, as vigorously as we want, but we cannot imposethose values on others. Even the majority should not do that. Real democracy is not rule by the majority. It is the rule of the majority within limits. That’s what liberal democracy is all about. The goal of imposing religious values was rightly discredited after the religious wars of the 17thcentury. We don’t want to go back there.

[1]Steven Lecce, “Right Wing, Left Wing, and In between,” April 14, 2016 at University of Manitoba

[2]Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, (2012) Penguin Books, p. 51

Slaughter by Divine Right

Things have been getting strange. Nearly every day it seems like the crazies are winning.

For a number of years Myanmar has been wracked by murderous attacks against a Muslim minority group of Rohingya people. Myanmar is a Buddhist majority country with a significant Muslim minority. The UN states that the Rohingya people of Myanmar are among the most persecuted people in the world at this time. Myanmar security forces have driven the Rohingya people  off their land, burned down their mosques and committed widespread looting, arson and rape of Rohingya women.

There have been a lot of mass shootings recently involving religious groups from around the world.   We read about a shooting in a mosque in Quebec City in January 2017 where 6 worshippers were shot and killed while 19 more were injured. The lone gunman opened fire just after evening prayers.

In October 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg Pennsylvania 11 people were murdered and 6 more injured by a gunman. This was the deadliest attack against the American Jewish community in U.S. history. The massacre was an unprecedented act of violence against American Jews—but it is by no means the first time that anti-Semitism has manifested itself in deadly violence against Jews in the United States.

In March 2019 there were 2 consecutive terrorist attacks at mosques in Christchurch New Zealand during Friday Prayer. The gunman who came all the way from Australia, launched two consecutive attacks that began at one mosque and continued at an Islamic Centre.  This case was also distinguished by the fact that the gunman live-streamed his first attack on Facebook. 50 people were killed and another 50 injured. These were the deadliest mass shootings in the history of New Zealand. The 28 year old gunman was described as a white supremacist and part of the alt-right movement that many Christians in America support. Just before the shooting he played “Serbia Strong” a nationalist song celebrating Radovan Karadžić who was found guilty of genocide against Bosnian Muslims.

In April 2019, on Easter Sunday, 3 Christian churches across Sri Lanka and 3 luxury hotels were targeted by  suicide bombers in series of coordinated suicide bombings. Approximately 253 people were killed and another 500 people injured. This attack was believed to be in retaliation to the shootings in New Zealand. This is the fact caught my eye. Sri Lankan government officials said the attacks were carried out by Sri Lankan citizens associated with National Thowheeth Jama’ath a local militant Islamist group with suspected foreign ties. The group was  previously known for attacks against Buddhists. The direct linkage between the two attacks was questioned by some experts. Yet these were clearly coordinated slaughters by a group of extremist Muslims apparently in retaliation for the recent attacks of the mosque in Christchurch New Zealand.

Then a couple of days ago, 6 months to the day after the slaughter at the synagogue in Pittsburg, there was another attack near a synagogue in California  where a man shot 4 people and killing one of them.  The suspect who turned himself in posted an 8-page manifesto online in which he boasted about being from “European ancestry” and expressed hatred of Jews.  He even said he had taken inspiration from the New Zealand mosque shooter in March of this year.

What do all of these events have in common? Violence? For sure. But violence of a particular sort. Violence in favor of or against a particular religion.  This is deeply disturbing. Have we entered the era of religious world wars?  They are happening everywhere.  What is happening here?

One of my favorite poets, William Butler Yeats, seemed to understand it best. As he said in his great poem “The Second Coming” which he wrote nearly exactly 100 years ago:

 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity. 

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

 

The Second Coming!

Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

 

Although this poem presages a “Second Coming” in the poem it is a nightmare. Just like the Roman World was shocked by the arrival of Christ, Yeats suggests, our world will be shocked and rocked by the new arrival. It will happen he suggest, about 2,000 years after Chris was born. About now in other words. It will be a “rough beast” that slouches toward Bethlehem waiting “to be born.” It will “trouble our sight”.  It will loose another “blood-dimmed tide” and may drown “the ceremony of innocence” once again. As the narrator of the poem seems to fear, it will no doubt wreak havoc and terror.

Is this the terror that is approaching? Is the beast moving its horrifying  “slow thighs?” Things are falling apart and the centre no longer holds. “Mere anarchy” is loosed upon the world. Why “mere” anarchy? The Extremists are taking over. The religious wars are back again. The rest of us are doomed.So it seems.

As I have said elsewhere, when religion leads to hate it is no longer religion. What we have is actually a toxic brew of hate and racism. All of these are inimical to genuine religion, but find fertile ground in the soil of pseudo-religion.

Some people (too many people) seem to believe that they have the divinely granted right to slaughter other people as a result of having been issued a licence to kill by their personal revengeful god. How can this be? Where do we go from here?

The Uncertainty Principle

Moral humility is born out of uncertainty. Bertrand Russell, the great British philosopher was inspired by John Locke. Locke always emphasized that all knowledge is uncertain.  People should always take into consideration that they might be wrong. This should be remembered whenever we deal with others who have different opinions from us. This leads directly to tolerance in practice. Live and let live. Reject fanaticism in favour of moderation.

Russel called this the liberal outlook. it lies not in any particular beliefs but rather in how they are held. Instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively with the understanding at all times that new evidence may show we were mistaken and will then abandon our beliefs. This is the opposite of how theologians hold beliefs.

Critical thinking is not utopian. It adopts instead what I have called the Russell principle, after Bertrand Russell. He said, “it is wrong to inflict a certain harm to achieve a dubious good.The more uncertain the future goal one is trying to achieve, the less the harm one must employ to obtain it.” It might be permitted to inflict violence to avoid a certain greater harm, but it makes no sense to inflict a certain harm to avoid an uncertain future harm unless that future harm is much, much worse than the means. This always requires a rational analysis of the probabilities. The more dubious the future goal the more gentle must be the means employed to obtain it. The problem with many modern revolutionary utopians is that often they inflict a certain substantial present harm to achieve not just a dubious future goal, but an impossible goal!

I prefer modest goals and modest means.  Many believe such views, especially in religion or politics, is too tame. They prefer missionary zeal. I don’t. I prefer moral humility.

 

My Country tis of thy people you’re dying

 

On the way home from the theatre 2 days ago, we heard reports on the radio about young students from the school in Parkland Florida where 17 students were killed, allegedly by a young man with an AR-15. They had heard President Trump’s assurances that “they were safe” and were “loved” by people who would do “everything” to protect them. Lies in other words. Fake news. They also heard him offer once again his “thoughts and prayers,” but also noticed that in his talk the word “guns” was never spoken. After all it was not for nothing that the NRA had contributed $30 million to his presidential campaign! It appears that was money well spent.

The newspapers had also reported to the students that “their” Florida Senator Marco Rubio and “their” Florida Governor Rick Scott had both scored A+ in the rating released by the National Rifle Association about the quality of politicians from their perspective. A+ ratings are reserved by them for “legislators who have excellent voting records on 2nd Amendment issues and who vigorously fight to promote and defend the right to keep and bear arms.” I wonder how the students would have ranked them? I believe Rubio and Scott each received $3 million for their last election campaigns. Again money well spent from the perspective of the NRA. From the perspective of the students not so much.

In fact after the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando Governor Scott said, “The second Amendment never killed anybody. Evil did.” So his solution for mass shootings is to allow evil to arm itself to the teeth with automatic rifles? Or is it to allow young people to buy them before they can vote or drive a car.

One of the 17-year old students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, that was interviewed said that Senator Rubio “had blood on his hands.” I concur.

Many of us thought that after the massacre at Sandy Hook School in Newtown Connecticut in December 2012, when Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children between six and seven years old, as well as six adult staff members, something would be done in the United States to control gun violence besides thoughts and prayers. After all what could be worse than that? We were sadly mistaken. Nothing was done except to make gun ownership easier.

The Florida students who have been casting blame on their politicians who have put campaign financing ahead of the safety of school children have got it right. They do have blood on their hands.

We also heard a college professor talking on National Public Radio. He has written previously on this subject. He says that Americans can expect changes in gun control laws in the next year. I was shocked to hear that. But I had not heard it all. He added, “Americans can expect changes to gun control laws that will make it easier to get guns with silencers.”

On the day of the Florida massacre the school Superintendant said “Today we saw the worst of humanity; tomorrow we will see the best as we move forward together.” I strongly disagree. If nothing is done once again, this is not the best of humanity; this is the stupidest.

How can one deny that this country is sick? It reminds me of what Buffy Sainte-Marie sang “My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying.”

 

Why are so many children and young people taking guns to school?

 

Chris and I were talking about the latest shooting in the United States on February 14, 2018 in Florida. A young 19 year old former student allegedly walked into his old school, turned on the fire alarm so that students would rush out of building where he was waiting with an AR 15 automatic rifle. At  least 17 students were murdered  and 15 more were injured.

The latest shooting raises many important issues and I want to comment on them later. Today I want to concentrate on one issue? Why are so many young people in America the richest country in the world taking guns to schools to shoot students?

On the 24th of January 2018, I heard on the radio that the United States had experienced its 11th shooting at a school this year. 11 in 24 days! I guess there are just not enough guns in schools yet to deter shooters. In fact, so far in the US there has been a shooting at a school every 60 hours!

This issue is particularly important because of where we are now living for 3 months: Arizona. One of those school shootings occurred here in Arizona. I learned this week that Maricopa County, where we spend a lot of time when we are here, has more guns shops than any county in the United States. A gun shop is a place where guns can be purchased. In fact, Maricopa County has more gun shops than MacDonald’s Restaurants! Added to that,  the United States has more gun shops than there are Starbucks on the planet! So guns are part of the problem and I will discuss that on a later blog.

But what about the uncomfortable fact that so many of these involve school shootings? Yesterday right after we heard about the shooting, we stopped at a pizza restaurant for supper and asked Maya our young waitress who is a high school student what she thought of it. I asked her if she felt safe in school. She said she did. Of course she said, her school had a hired security officer on duty every day. The school in Florida, I was told, also had a security officer. That did not solve the problem. Maya, contrary to arguments of the National Rifle Association, did not think more guns in school were a good idea and would not make her feel more safe. On the contrary, she said, she feared if the security had guns they might be trigger-happy and makes things a lot worse. That was an astute comment. American soldiers for example, are famous for killing their own soldiers or soldiers of their allies in “friendly fire.”  That is because they are trained to be trigger happy.

Chris mentioned something very important. That is the startling extent to which extremism is rampant here. People here can’t talk to people they disagree with politically. Extremism is prevalent everywhere, but in few developed countries if any, more than the United States. Extremism is as American as apple pie. It always has been and as a result perhaps always will be. After all the country was born in an ugly holocaust against the indigenous people and that was quickly followed by centuries of importation of black people from Africa to be enslaved in support of America enterprise. Those were certainly extreme events and as we all know, extremism leads to  extremism.

The Great Divide is not a geological phenomenon; it is a social phenomenon. Liberals/Democrats can’t fathom the idiocy of Conservatives/Republicans. Conservatives and Republicans return the sentiments. They can’t stand each other. The statements about the others are astonishingly  extreme. No the word “extreme” is not extreme enough.

In America, and much of the modern world, but most spectacularly in America, there is a profound gulf between people. Often it seems that opposing sides come from different planets. This became pronounced  during the 2016 American presidential election campaign, in which a blatant extremist—Donald Trump—got elected and half the country loved him and the other half hated him. There was little in between. As Bill Maher said, “each half of society does not want to live with the other half.”

According to a PEW study, “81% of Americans can’t agree with the other side on basic facts.” How is it possible to have rational political debate in such circumstances? And if rational political debate is no longer possible, what is the alternative? Violence is the obvious answer. And America is a very violent society.

In politics people seem to be driven not by support for their own party so much as hatred of the other side. Increasingly they voice that hatred. And guess who is listening? The young people are nourished in that environment of corrosive hatred. Is it surprising that some mentally unbalanced youth resort to violence?

At the Republican National Convention, in 2016 a senior member of Donald Trump’s campaign said that Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party presumptive nominee at the time, “should be put in a firing squad and shot.” CBC radio went to Virginia to talk to Trump supporters. They were treated to many extreme statements. One said that “Hillary is a murderer and a liar I can’t even see how she is eligible for President.” One said this about Trump, “Donald Trump may be a loose cannon but perhaps that is what the country needs.” Another said that ‘she is the closest we will get to a civil war if she pushes her agenda. Can things get more extreme than this? Trump himself suggested that American gun supporters should take care of her.

Of course Democrats were no  better. They compared Trump to Hitler. Some called him a fascist. Many have called him a pathological liar.

How much more extreme can things get?

Jonathan Haidt was one of the speakers at the Arizona State University’s year long exploration of truth seeking, politics, and freedom of speech that Chris and I have been following. We missed his talk but caught it on TV. He is a social psychologist and had fascinating things to say about the state of America. He pointed out that “the more angry you are the more pleasing it is to encounter fake news. Even if part of you doubts it is true, it just feels so good.” We want it to be true and desire is always the enemy of truth.

Haidt puts the blame on the strong American tendency to make politics religious. American politics is about the sacred. And this polarizes. This creates “our side” where all good resides, while all the bad resides with “the other side.”

As he said, “when you start to think like this, then anyone who disagrees, anyone who challenges, anyone that leaves your group, they are apostate, they are heretics, they are blasphemers and the most satisfying thing to do with them is not to lecture them, or ground them, or spank them, it is to burn them. It just feels so right to burn them at the stake.” Strong words.

Again is it surprising that the children of the partisans, who see the hatred, reflect that same hatred in their disputes with their “enemies”? People can’t talk with those they disagree with, so unsurprisingly they resort to violence. After all when the other side is evil, a refusal to use violence against them seems like a breach of trust, a sacrilege. Hatred breeds monsters and our children are the first victims. Both the children who became killers and the children who are killed.