Sam Harris, Changing His Mind

Sam Harris, Changing His Mind

Last week, Sam Harris wrote a blog posted titled “The Pleasure of Changing My Mind.” Harris watched Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars and it’s now making him reconsider his views on U.S. foreign policy.

He writes:

“Generally, I have supported President Obama’s approach to waging our war against global jihadism, and I’ve always assumed that I would approve of his targets and methods were I privy to the same information he is. I’ve also said publicly, on more than one occasion, that I thought our actions should be mostly covert.”

“I have also been very slow to worry about NSA eavesdropping. … I just don’t know what I think about Edward Snowden. Is he a traitor or a hero? It still seems too soon to say.”

But after watching Dirty Wars, he’s reconsidering. I felt the urge to respond simultaneously with snark and contempt and with sincerity and hopefulness. So here are both.

The Snark

Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and public intellectual, who’s written books on moral philosophy and human flourishing, has just decided – literally, just decided – that his government mass murdering people in secret with no oversight or accountability might be problematic. In fact, his “general sense of our actions abroad has grown conflicted.” By “our” he means the American state, the murderous empire with which he self identifies.

The jury is still out on whether or not the mass surveillance state is a good thing. Whether Edward Snowden is a traitor remains to be seen by the moral philosopher. But at least he feels some embarrassment for being “so trusting and complacent with respect to [his] government’s use of force.” So, progress?

The Sincerity

Okay. Look, I like Sam Harris. He’s helped shaped my views as an atheist and his books have stayed with me for years. The Moral Landscape pushed me farther toward the moral (and scientific) humanism I call home. I also like Dawkins (The Selfish Gene is a masterpiece) and I miss Hitchens. Their clarity and persistence when it comes to religion (and irrationality in general) have been inspiring.

But despite their virtues, the “New Atheists” suffer from a chronic blindless to the crimes of Western governments. Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, in particular (before his death in 2011), have given their support and moral sanction to US foreign policy.

This support is informed by their view of Islam as being a grave threat to “civilized nations.” Criticisms of Islam are perfectly fine. They are warranted and necessary. But as much as Harris points out that attacking a religion (or ideology) is not the same as attacking people, he does sanction violence against Muslims. And it’s impossible not to see that being a result of his views on Islam coupled with his refusal to recognize the evils of his own government.

As he says:

The president’s campaign of targeted assassination has had my full support, and I lost no sleep over the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki.

In case you don’t know, Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen murdered by his own government in a drone strike. Although it is very likely that he was not a good guy, he received no trial, no due process, and was never convicted of any crimes. He was simply murdered by executive decree. Sam Harris lost no sleep over this. Did he lose any sleep over the death of Al-Awlaki’s sixteen year-old son, Abdulrahman, who was also murdered by the U.S. government two weeks later?

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki

The New Atheists are intelligent, rational people who may even identify themselves as anti-authoritarian. Yet they hesitate (or outright refuse) to criticize their own authoritarian governments that commit mass murder, incarceration, surveillance, and torture.

I call Sam Harris rational precisely because I believe he can be swayed by reason, evidence, and empathy. (The latter is what I assume was at work while watching Dirty Wars). I respect that he is able to change his mind. But I can’t help but feel disappointment – and some contempt – that it is only now, in 2014, that Harris is beginning to suspect that the United States' continual and horrific use of violence is having a net negative affect on the world.

The cynic in me sees this as incredibly depressing. The optimist is hopeful that Sam will take more than one step down the path of opposing state violence.

Update - February 25, 2014

In response to the question: Isn’t Islam so destructive of an ideology that it warrants some support for these programs?

Let’s concede every point on Islam. Or take them to their most extreme (on the negative side). The Quran is a horrible work that inspires terrible behavior from people. Its doctrine is inherently destructive and malicious. That anyone who takes the doctrine seriously (a “true” Muslim) will be seriously influenced to commit violent acts. That there are many more True Muslims than we realize, and their number is increasing. That casual, cultural Muslims are being marginalized and having little influence on their societies.

Even if you accept all of that – which I don’t, for the record – how does that justify something like the American targeted killing/signature strike program? A program that an NYU and Stanford study concluded kills 2% of the intended targets. Two-percent. It is an engine of civilian mass murder. These aren’t crazy militant Al-Qaeda operatives being killed. These are vegetable merchants, laborers, qat farmers, shop keepers, teachers, old men and women, husbands, wives, little children walking on the street, teenagers eating at restaurants, people at parties and on the way to weddings. They’re normal people with normal lives who have no ability to hurt “America” even if they wanted to.

I can’t understand any justification – even if we accept the danger of militant Islamists – for this kind of destruction of human life. Sam Harris thinks that if we don’t accept the collateral damage (a vile fucking term when applied to humans) then “the thugs would inherit the earth.” Well I’ve got news for you Sam, the thugs already own the place.

If you want to find them, look to Washington. And to Moscow, and London, and Beijing. And maybe every other capital on the planet. But where you won’t find them is in Northern goddamn Waziristan.

Published on February 24, 2014
Cover image: Sam Harris, courtesy of Wikipedia