Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Man in the Mirror

Steve was nervous. He had never liked flying, especially since 9/11, and he especially hated flying with his family. But here they were anyway, waiting in the terminal to go to his parents' place for Thanksgiving. It didn't help that President Trump was on CNN talking about his plan to ban Muslims from flying. Steve would have never agreed with this kind of talk before, but the more he heard it, the less outrageous it seemed. He looked up at his son, playing with his Han Solo toy, and thought about how he would do anything to protect him. "Desperate times call for desperate measures, right?"

Seeing their plane pull into the gate, he thought about how packed it would be, and decided to go the the restroom before they boarded. As he flushed and walked over to the sink, he was still thinking about Trump's proposal. He washed his hands, looked up in the mirror to check his hair, and jumped back, startled.

Looking back at him was a Middle Eastern man about his age, wearing one of those little caps some Muslims wear. He jumped back at the same time Steve did. Then they both realized there wasn't a mirror above the sink at all. There were actually two rows of sinks, back-to-back. Some had mirrors above them, while others just had a gap in the wall between them, so that it gave the the illusion of being a full wall of mirrors. The two men were looking at each other through that wall.

Steve looked down along the wall, saw what was causing the illusion, and then looked back at the man standing where his reflection should have been. He had a pained expression. "I'm sorry," the man said in an American accent. "I thought there was a mirror there. It just startled me for a second."

"Me too! No problem," Steve said. Then he laughed, "Man, that was weird, wasn't it?"

The man in the mirror laughed, too. "It really was. I thought I had a new face!"

They nodded at each other and walked out of the bathroom through separate entrances. Steve was still smiling, but he felt weirdly disoriented. Looking up and seeing another man in the mirror had made him feel disembodied, as if the boundaries of his self had fallen away, or expanded out beyond his body. He had looked up expecting to see himself, and found another person there--another man's face where his own should have been. For a second he had the sensation that the face in the mirror actually was his own; like he was seeing the world through the other man's eyes.

And then he realized why the other man had seemed pained as well as startled. He was a Muslim in an airport--he knew people were looking at him suspiciously. Some of them didn't even try to hide it. They just stared at him through hard, narrow eyes. He tried to ignore it and seem unobtrusive, but now he had scared a guy just by looking in a mirror.

Steve thought, "That can't be fun. Flying must be a lot more uncomfortable for him than it is for me" He wondered if the man had been watching Trump on TV, too, and how he must have felt.

Walking back to where his family was sitting, he saw that the man and his family were sitting in the chairs across from his wife and son. The man had a son, too, and the two boys were playing with their Star Wars figures. The Muslim boy had Luke Skywalker, and he and Han seemed to be in pitched battle with Boba Fett. Steve walked up and held out his hand. "Looks like our kids have met, too. I'm Steve. Where are you guys headed?"

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Blaming Innocent Muslims for Terrorism

It's 5 in the morning. I can't sleep. Yesterday, governors around the country declared that they would oppose having Syrian refugees in their states. And people loved it, especially in the red states. There was an outpouring of fear, hate and xenophobia on social media like nothing I've ever seen in this country. To get a feeling for it, check out the comments following the announcement by Asa Hutchinson, the governor of my home state of Arkansas.

If you know me, or read this blog, you know I'm no fan of fundamentalism--especially hateful or violent fundamentalism. I just flat out don't like it. Christian fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism, Muslim fundamentalism, whatever--I think the world would be far better off without it. But what I dislike even more than fundamentalism is blaming innocent, nonviolent religious people--even fundamentalists--for the actions of a few extremists. I don't blame any of the Christians I know for the Westboro Baptist Church or the Ku Klux Klan (yes, the Klan is emphatic about its Christianity). I don't blame the Jews I know for a few Jewish extremists in Israel. And I don't blame the Muslims I know for Al Qaeda or ISIS. Why? Because I don't think it's fair to blame the innocent majority for the actions of a criminal minority.

This doesn't just go for religion. It applies any time you have people blaming whole groups for the deeds of a few, and it is always wrong. You shouldn't blame all men for the few men who are rapists. You shouldn't blame all cops for the actions of a few brutal ones. You shouldn't blame all gun owners for the actions of a few murderous nuts. Why? I'm sure it's obvious to most readers, but let me state it clearly: because most of them are innocent. They didn't do it! The vast majority of them wouldn't do it.

This is not to say that you shouldn't point it out if a particular group has a problematic subculture, or that all groups shouldn't oppose their own rogue elements. The police, for example, have some rogue elements who think it's OK to brutalize certain people. Other police should speak out against that, as should citizens in general. Men should speak out against rape and sexual assault. Christianity has extremists like Westboro, or Kevin Swanson, who last week said that gays are "worthy of death"...at a conference attended by three presidential candidates. (That's why I'm more afraid of Christian extremists than Muslim ones--because they have the ear of powerful American politicians). People should absolutely speak out against this sort of thing, and should ask why those candidates didn't object to this kind of venom. Decent Christians in particular should speak out against it, partly because they're the ones the extremists might actually listen to (though I doubt it).

Likewise, I think it's obvious that there is a violent extremist subculture within Islam. It's a problem, and a big one. Islamic terrorists have done terrible, terrible things, and decent Muslims, and all decent people, should speak out against it. And they do! Every week I eat at a Middle Eastern restaurant owned by Syrian-American Muslims. They have pro-democracy banners around their restaurant, and Islamic magazines I read while waiting for my food. Those magazines routinely denounce terrorists like ISIS and Al Qaeda--calling them "barbarians" and saying they are harming Islam and Muslims (which they are--the majority of people killed by Islamic terrorists are Muslim, and every terrorist attack sparks an anti-Muslim backlash). So, yes, Muslims are in fact denouncing the extremists. That doesn't mean they've stopped them, but have Christians stopped the Westboro Baptist Church and the KKK? Have decent gun owners stopped the mass shooters? If you're a gun owner, should I blame you for the fact that you haven't put an end to mass shootings?

Anyway, in terms of Syrian refugees, of course they should be screened, as all immigrants are screened. But are we really going to preemptively blame them for terrorism? For the very terrorism that they are fleeing, and which they have seen much closer than most of us have? Is that your idea of American values? Does that honor traditions like "innocent until proven guilty", "freedom of religion", and the words on the Statue of Liberty? Is this who we are?

Besides, do we want to give the actual terrorists what they want? They want us to live in fear. Are we going to oblige them? They want us to fear and hate refugees, because they want strife between Islam and the west. They want an apocalyptic clash of civilizations. Do we really want to play along with a bunch of fanatical psychopaths trying to bring about the end of the world? I don't know about you, but I'd rather not.

But let's not stick with abstractions. Let's look at numbers. Earlier, I mentioned that it's wrong to blame men in general for the actions of a few rapists. I think most people would agree with me, and I think most men would feel pretty aggrieved if we started assuming they were guilty of being rapists until proven innocent. I know I would. But yesterday I started wondering how the numbers add up if you consider rape vs. terrorism. Is it as unjust to accuse the average Muslim of being a terrorist as it is to accuse the average American man of being a rapist? Actually, it's a lot more unjust. According to the US State Department, in 2014, terrorist attacks killed or injured 67,518 people worldwide. That sounds like a lot, but it's only about one per 100,000 people--most American cities would love to have a violent crime rate that low. Of course, Muslims are not behind all terrorist attacks, but Islamic extremist groups do account for the majority of terrorism casualties around the world (see State Department report). But let's briefly and unfairly assume for simplicity that all terrorist casualties are caused by Muslims, and look at the numbers. There are about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Terrorist casualties in 2014 amounted to one casualty for about every 23,700 Muslims.

Let me repeat that. One casualty for every 23,700 Muslims. That doesn't suggest to me that the average Muslim is very likely to be a terrorist. Does it to you? If so, consider this...

Rape estimates can vary widely depending on the definition, but a decent medium-range estimate is an average of 293,066 rapes per year in the United States (over four times the number of terrorism casualties worldwide). There are currently about 150 million men in the United States (of course, not all rapes are committed by men, but the majority are). Do the math, and you find that in the United States every year, there's about one rape for every 511 men. Compare that to the one-per-23,700 statistic for Muslims and terrorism. It would be pretty unjust to call all men rapists, but it would be a whole lot more unjust (statistically speaking) to call all Muslims terrorists.

Admittedly, those are quick calculations based on the research I've done in my free time since yesterday morning. It isn't a sophisticated analysis, but I think it still makes a point. If you think it's unfair to assume men are rapists until proven guilty, or that gun owners are mass shooters, or that cops are murderers, or that Christians are bigots, and so on and so on, then you should think it's unfair to assume innocent Muslims are terrorists. Now, could a Muslim refugee commit an act of terror? Of course. But so could an American-born Christian like the Westboro admirer who opened fire in a Louisiana movie theater recently. And a cop might murder somebody, and a previously-law-abiding gun owner might become a mass shooter. Sadly, these things will surely occur. We should do all we can to prevent them, but we have to realize there's a certain amount of risk to living in a free, open, and just society. Living in such a society--a society like ours at its best--can be scary and even sometimes dangerous. But it's worth it.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Being Good When Nobody's Watching: A Response to Ben Carson

Helix Nebula. Click for credits
This morning I saw the following quote from Ben Carson, former neurosurgeon and current Republican front-runner in the 2016 presidential race: 
Ultimately, if you accept the evolutionary theory, you dismiss ethics, you don’t have to abide by a set of moral codes, you determine your own conscience based on your own desires.
Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist--the same denomination as George McCready Price, whose ideas on "flood geology" set the stage for 20th century creationism. He said this in an 2004 interview with Adventist Review magazine.

It's a version of a common sentiment in evangelical/religious right circles: that if you don't believe in God, you have no reason to be moral. Actually, Carson's version is quite a bit more extreme than that. He's not just saying atheists have no reason to be moral. He's saying anyone who believes in evolutionary theory--whatever their beliefs about God--will "dismiss ethics". After all, he's smart enough to know that many Christians believe in evolution, too. Over half of  all Americans believe in some form of evolutionary theory, and the majority of Americans are Christian. So, here we have a man who may very well be our next president, and he is suggesting that the majority of Americans have no real moral foundation. 

I find this a little disturbing. I also find it a more than a little insulting. I don't much like being told that I "dismiss ethics", that I don't "abide by a set of moral codes", and that I base my conscience on nothing more than my own desires. If I were a Christian who believed in evolution, I would feel similarly slandered. The only reason I just find it irritating, instead of infuriating, is that I don't think Carson is deliberately insulting anybody. He's just saying things without thinking about how insulting they actually are. He actually seems like a fairly pleasant, funny guy. Still, what he's saying really is quite insulting, and deeply unfair to millions of decent atheists, agnostics, and progressive Christians. 

Besides, it's demonstrably untrue. How do I know? Because I'm an agnostic who believes in evolution, and yet I still have a conscience. I do abide by a set of moral codes. I do not, in fact, dismiss ethics. Neither do any of my friends, many of whom are atheists (and if they did dismiss ethics, they wouldn't be my friends).

I think Dr. Carson would actually concede this--that even many atheists behave as though they have a conscience and a moral code. What he and people like him seem to have trouble imagining is why. Why, if you don't believe in God (or in Carson's case, if you do believe in evolution), would you feel any need to be moral? 

To explain why, I'd like to tell a brief, sad story. A couple of months ago, not long after I had gotten a new car, I backed it into another car in a parking lot. It only dented my bumper a little, but it smashed the headlights of the other car and left a big crack in the bumper--the kind of crack that looks expensive to fix. But was early in the morning, and there was no one around. I could have driven away, and the driver would have never known who hit his car. 

So what did I do? I cussed a little, and then I got out a pen and paper and wrote a note explaining what had happened, and left my name and number. 

Why did I do that? It's not because I believe it's what God would want me to do--I'm agnostic, and I don't know if there's a God, or what She might want. I also didn't do it because I thought I might be rewarded for it in heaven, or punished for not doing it in hell. I very much doubt that either place exists, and I don't think doing something decent just because you fear punishment or seek reward actually makes you a decent person. So what could I possibly have been thinking? Before I say, I'd like to ask any reader who agrees with Dr. Carson a favor: take a guess. What do you think I was thinking? Can you honestly not think of any reason to I should leave that note, besides "God wants me to"? I doubt it, because I imagine you're a decent person too, so you can easily imagine reasons to leave a note. And I bet you can guess my reasons, which are as follows: 

I left that note because I put myself in the place of the other car owner. I've had people dent my car and run away, and it sucks. The fact that your car is damaged is bad enough, but there's also the extra indignity of feeling you've been wronged. That's the part that really galls--that somebody out there didn't have the decency to own up to their mistake.

So, if I don't want somebody to do that to me, then I can't very well do it to somebody else. More than that, I don't want to live in a society where people don't do the right thing when they think they can get away with it. If I want to live in a society where people are decent to each other, then I have to be decent myself. It's really as simple as that.

And I don't see why it should be so hard for anybody to understand. So let me end by asking the following question to folks who think like Dr. Carson: How would YOU like being told you don't have any ethics or conscience? I'm guessing you wouldn't like it any more than I do.