Fighting Fire with Ire: 3 Lessons from Noam Chomsky’s Takedown of Sam Harris

The day before Mayweather fought Pacquiao, New Atheist Sam Harris released an email sparring match he’d had with famed linguist and leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky. In his bestselling book The End of Faith, Harris had accused Chomsky of drawing a “moral equivalence” between 9/11 and the 1998 U.S. missile attack on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, which the Clinton administration had allegedly believed to be a chemical weapons factory.

The ensuing debate, which occurred over a four-day email exchange, is the most uneven public intellectual bout in recent memory. Chomsky repeatedly called out Harris’s rhetorical evasions and sloppy thinking, at one point describing one of Harris’s arguments as “so ludicrous as to be embarrassing.”

For his part, Harris was persistent and calm, but he seemed to fundamentally misunderstand the scope of Chomsky’s critique. Harris repeatedly asked Chomsky to be more polite, and offered to let him revise his comments before publishing the exchange. Chomsky refused the offer.

Here at The Cubit we read a lot of bad arguments, and you might be surprised to learn that Chomsky’s refusal to just be polite came as a welcome surprise. Here are three take-home lessons from the Harris vs. Chomsky Fight of the Century.

1. Call Out Bullshit Thought Experiments.

For Sam Harris, “not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development.” Yes, he admits, the U.S. has committed atrocities at a larger scale than many of our enemies, but we have higher moral standing because these were mistakes. Harris likens the U.S. to a “well-intentioned giant,” whose aims are good even if it occasionally blunders.

Underlining the good intentions of the U.S. even during attacks like the one on al-Shifa, Harris offered the following thought experiment:

Imagine that al-Qaeda is filled, not with God-intoxicated sociopaths intent upon creating a global caliphate, but genuine humanitarians. Based on their research, they believe that a deadly batch of vaccine has made it into the U.S. pharmaceutical supply. They have communicated their concerns to the FDA but were rebuffed. Acting rashly, with the intention of saving millions of lives, they unleash a computer virus, targeted to impede the release of this deadly vaccine. As it turns out, they are right about the vaccine but wrong about the consequences of their meddling—and they wind up destroying half the pharmaceuticals in the U.S.

What would I say? I would say that this was a very unfortunate event—but these are people we want on our team. I would find the FDA highly culpable for not having effectively communicated with them. These people are our friends, and we were all very unlucky.

Chomsky’s response:

The scenario you describe here is, I’m afraid, so ludicrous as to be embarrassing.  It hasn’t even the remotest relation to Clinton’s decision to bomb al-Shifa – not because they had suddenly discovered anything remotely like what you fantasize here, or for that matter any credible evidence at all, and by sheer coincidence, immediately after the Embassy bombings for which it was retaliation, as widely acknowledged.  That is truly scandalous.

And of course they knew that there would be major casualties.  They are not imbeciles, but rather adopt a stance that is arguably even more immoral than purposeful killing, which at least recognizes the human status of the victims, not just killing ants while walking down the street, who cares?

In fact, as you would know if you deigned to read before launching accusations, they were informed at once by Kenneth Roth of HRW [Human Rights Watch] about the impending humanitarian catastrophe, already underway.  And of course they had far more information available than HRW did.

Your own moral stance is revealed even further by your complete lack of concern about the apparently huge casualties and the refusal even to investigate them…

I’ve seen apologetics for atrocities before, but rarely at this level.

The Take-Away: If your opponent creates a thought-experiment that bends reality to fit their assumptions, pummel them with the facts.

2. “Civility” is a Dubious Rhetoric When it Comes to State Power

In The End of Faith, Sam Harris accuses Chomsky and other leftists of “moral blindness” towards the important differences between “the kind of force civilized democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence [perpetuated by Muslim governments].” Harris argues that there is a qualitative moral difference between the U.S. and the Muslim world, which leftists like Chomsky cannot see.

Chomsky critiques Harris on two fronts. First, he deconstructs the accusation of “moral equivalence,” a term that “has been regularly used… to try to undercut critical analysis of the state one defends.” Of course there are moral differences between a terrorist attack against defenseless civilians and a U.S. missile strike that was believed to target a chemical weapons manufacturer. The problem with the accusation of “moral equivalence” is that it creates a relativist strawman, distracting us from more substantial ethical questions about U.S. actions.

Second, Chomsky dismantles Harris’s claim that good intentions alone can separate the U.S. from its moral enemies. “Professing benign intentions is the norm for those who carry out atrocities and crimes,” Chomsky points out, and so the claim the U.S. means less harm than it enacts is an empty one.

Throughout their exchange, Harris fails to recognize or address these substantial critiques. Instead, he accuses Chomsky of “running into the weeds” and focusing too narrowly on these points, calls him cantankerous and prickly, and refuses to move forward until Chomsky has sufficiently outlined—to Harris’s liking—the moral hierarchies of various violent intentions.

Harris asks Chomsky to be civil and return to a question that had already been answered, rather than “litigating all points (both real and imagined) in the most plodding and accusatory way.”

Chomsky’s response:

I agree with you completely that we cannot have a rational discussion of these matters, and that it is too tedious to pretend otherwise.  And I agree that I am litigating all points (all real, as far as we have so far determined) in a “plodding and accusatory way.” That is, of course, a necessity in responding to quite serious published accusations that are all demonstrably false, and as I have reviewed, false in a most interesting way: namely, you issue lectures condemning others for ignoring “basic questions” that they have discussed for years, in my case decades, whereas you have refused to address them and apparently do not even allow yourself to understand them.  That’s impressive.

Chomsky refuses to return to the fundamentals of Harris’s argument—the dubious arguments of moral equivalence and hierarchical intentions—because, as he had already explained, they were not just flawed, but also conceptually imbricated with defenses of American power. In the guise of politeness, Harris was asking Chomsky to play a language game whose rules enshrined Western values.

This reminds me a bit of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s recent argument that pleas for nonviolence in Baltimore are ultimately demands to back down and comply. “When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out,” Coates states, “it exposes itself as a ruse.” Similarly, for Chomsky to politely return to the philosophical premise of Harris’s choosing would be to ignore the larger context that makes his arguments flawed in the first place.

The Take-Away: Calls for “civil discourse” ought to be criticized and ignored if such civility would exclude facts and perspectives necessary for questioning dominant powers.

3. Drop the Mic on Your Way Out

 

From his first email to Chomsky, Harris seems eager to create a correspondence that he can publish on his website. Chomsky, on the other hand, is clearly more interested in the argument itself. When Harris continues to push the correspondence toward publication, Chomsky just drops the mic:

The idea of publishing personal correspondence is pretty weird, a strange form of exhibitionism – whatever the content.  Personally, I can’t imagine doing it.  However, if you want to do it, I won’t object.

  • Cuck Finly

    Here is a comment I wrote today as a comment on the YouTube comment section of The Majority Report :

    Well, listen I don’t want to seem as if I were trying to lead anyone to a certain conclusion. So I will be direct.
    You could [if you want] take a second look at what Harris wrote about Chomsky’s views in “the end of faith”. How he [Harris] represented Chomsky, and what he claims Chomsky’s position is. Go directly to the source Harris alleges he took Chomsky’s point of view from and read Chomsky’s own words (in context). You will discover an extreme form of falsification on the part of Harris – As Chomsky wrote time and time again “As you know” Chomsky knew Harris is neither stupid nor naive. He [Harris] consciously chose to misrepresent Chomsky’s views).Then you could revisit the email non-interchange and look for Chomsky’s claims about having his views falsified by Harris, and try to prove him wrong (this is by the way how you do it the lab, you come up with a hypothesis, then try to shoot it down, if you do not succeed then congratulations, you just came up with a working scientific theory).
    Why did I just mention this last part?
    Harris bases his view on religion upon the hypothesis [this is not a scientific theory] that Ideologies can be so detrimental : They could basically corrupt the mind to a degree where the individual becomes powerless in front of the “commands” of that specific ideology (this, not only, haven’t been proven, but is also supported by very little to no evidence in neuroscience, in fact Harris’s only viable laboratory work, consists of looking at fMRI’s of American christians and non believers 54 study subjects in total). While it might give you a general idea of what eras in the brain “light up” in correlation to a specific situation [when confronted with questions about different topics] it cannot prove causation [to taking action]. His scientific justification as to why it is the case to assume certain creeds are to blame for the actions of specific individuals from within the religion, is fundamentally flawed (Not to even begin with the profound level of ignorance he displays when talking about these religions, and cultures).
    Even so, Harris (with great Hutzpah) does not extend [equally] the courtesy of his anti ideological ideology to all ideologies and creeds. But reserves a special place for the religion of islam. In doing so, he gives millions of good western folks an excuse to believe it is not our fault these brown skinned animals cannot be droned into Democracy. It is their ideology which prevents them from seeing straight. I will use Chomsky’s argument. Harris likes to speak up against god intoxicated sociopaths (mainly muslims) without taking a look at a god intoxicated sociopath who followed a divine command to smite the enemy. And so he did. In a recent interview with Joe Rogan Harris even idealised people like Dick (again very very sneakily) Again attributing to them the notion of doing what they do with altruism and high motives. I think N.C debunked this one.
    Why did Harris become such a media sensation? He is bald, and he is clever, plus he is a brunette with blue eyes. And mainstream media has a pretty clear agenda when it comes to talking anti brown people (mainly fox news, but also other avenues one might deem progressive like CNN). We need pseudo intellectual state apologists if we are to win the hearts and minds of the people and march them into war. People want to see a tough discussion on islam. I get that and I AGREE it is a valid point. BUT BEWARE when we go from having a constructive conversation to simply defaming an entire group of people so we can conveniently excuse and justify all the shit we do. In order to keep doing it. Harris is not stupid, nor is he naive, he is well aware that what he does, simply alienates people. He is not interested in solving problems, but rather justifying our wrong doing. You can either think Harris is clueless as to how much he does not understand politics and international relations, or that his intent is malicious. I personally see no third option .

    This is a pathetic attempt to recycle the war of Ideologies we had for half of the last century (Democracy v.s Communism).
    Go back and check out how all wars needed to be justified at that era with the excuse we were fighting the Russians (now we know it was not the case).
    DIG DIG DIG

  • Alexander Sopov

    Simply not true. Chomsky was very ambigious about his opinions on which was worse: the 9/11 attack or the al-shifa bombings.

    That was the premise of the whole discussion and when asked directly, Chomsky angrily says that he has never thought the Al Shifa bombings to be a worse atrocity than the 9/11 attacks, but when talking about the two he clearly makes the Al Shifa bombings the worse atrocity.

    Harris tried to square this in order to move forward, but Chomsky, realizing he’s painted himself in a corner, refused to clear out the confusion

  • Alexander Sopov

    How about Chomsky refusing to be clear about which was worse, Al Shifa or 9/11? He contradicted himself so much on that point, it was quite impossible to move the discussion forward.

  • Cuck Finly

    I don’t want to be disrespectful (this is a fine, fine website).
    But I will have to say, you are reading into this what you want, and not necessarily what is actually there.
    Sam Harris, like an octopus tries to trap his opponents into a well crafted mind boggling world of hypotheticals which have absolutely no relation to the real world.
    This is a form of passive aggressive behaviour. Chomsky is a high ranking linguist and a 4 decade strong activist. He cannot be fooled. Harris’s hypotheticals are not an academical exercise. They are an insult, and attack… This is an aggressive attempt to steer the conversation towards a dimension where you make the rules.
    You can believe what ever you want to believe. Like everybody else does.

  • Alexander Sopov

    Well, I’ll grant you the right to call the hypothethicals whatever you wish, since they’re irrelevant to this case.

    There needn’t be any thought experiment in order for the confusion. When asked directly about which atrocity is worse, Chomsky seems quite appalled at the thought that there can be any doubt about him thinking 9/11 was the more immoral atrocity than the Al Shifa bombings.

    However, when talking about the two incidents, one rightly doubts his opinion on this matter.

    This confusion arises besides Harris’s thought experiments and not as a result of them.

  • Cuck Finly

    This is what I mean by “believe what you want to believe”… This quote from the email non interchange constitutes a solid piece to refute your accusations.
    “I have in the past, and did so again in response to queries from journalists shortly after 9-11 atrocities. I mentioned that the toll of the “horrendous crime” of 9-11, committed with “wickedness and awesome cruelty” (quoting Robert Fisk), may be comparable to the consequences of Clinton’s bombing of the Al-Shifa plant in August 1998. That plausible conclusion elicited an extraordinary reaction, filling many web sites and journals with feverish and fanciful condemnations, which I’ll ignore.”

  • Alexander Sopov

    There you have a perfect ambigious quote. There he says that the 9/11 MAY BE comparable to the Clinton bombings of the Al-Shifa plant. Here he clearly uses the Clinton bombing as a benchmark of evil, one that the 9/11 atrocity MAY compare to.

    But when asked directly, he says the following: “As you know (apologies for the accuracy), I described 9/11 as a “horrendous crime” committed with “wickedness and awesome cruelty.” In the case of al-Shifa, I said nothing of the sort.”

    You’ll have to excuse us non-Chomsky-fans for being quite confused.

  • Jim Reed

    9/11 killed a lot of people, but more than that it showed us our insanity. We killed a hundred times more by responding with a war against a non-involved nation that was also against our attackers, and by doing that we displayed our greed for the world to see. After 9/11 America was the most loved nation in the world, and after we reacted to it we were the most hated. We also now kind of hate ourselves because we see what liars and torturers we have turned into.

  • DKeane123

    I read the full exchange and it appears to me that Chomsky was not at all interested in having a conversation with Harris from the very beginning. I didn’t find the text enlightening on either end.

  • Al

    Harris isn’t arguing from a point of US exceptionalisism? That’s a good one.

  • Burnt Orange

    The author of this article seemed intent on taking sides. He overstated the disparity in the discussion and used derogatory descriptions of Mr. Harris’ arguments and points of contention. Maybe Mr Chomsky made better points and was more cogent, but that is in the eye of the beholder and this author was clearly seeing through one eye only.

    Mr. Chomsky to me is clearly using his great gifts of intellect and rhetoric to elevate the Islamic cause to a moral equivalence with America’s response. The motivations of religious fervor as opposed to some vague overreaction to the tactics and methods used by the West seems to be an apples and oranges argument. Unless of course there is some universally agreed upon morality rule book in being used by all sides.

    In the end I think America for all its faults does not want to enslave others nor “cleanse” cultures and religions currently operating within the world. We don’t seem to want occupation of other lands nor is empire building on the menu. Blundering around causing mayhem and destruction while stupid does not seem to rise to the level of genocide or mass atrocities. Maybe our lack of focus and end game are a serious problem within itself.

  • DKeane123

    I see what you are getting at, thank you, I have changed my mind. /s

  • Al

    Indeed, I have seldom seen the U.S. engage in any military interventions or covert operations, particularly in the Middle East. Muslim states, on the other hand, are always invading and waging wars on Western states.

  • Al

    Oh, come on. You can’t seriously believe what you write. Most of Harris’ writings are devoted to defending American exceptionalism and Zionism from the Muslim peril.

  • xofpi

    “In the end I think America for all its faults does not want to enslave
    others nor “cleanse” cultures and religions currently operating within
    the world. We don’t seem to want occupation of other lands nor is
    empire building on the menu. Blundering around causing mayhem and
    destruction while stupid does not seem to rise to the level of genocide
    or mass atrocities. Maybe our lack of focus and end game are a serious
    problem within itself.”

    That is just an astounding paragraph for one that was apparently written unironically.

  • DKeane123

    If you could please cite someplace where he has been a proponent of American exceptionalism, I would certainly be interested in it. It should be a good reference too, as you said most of his writing does this.

  • xofpi

    Harris is arguing that the US can be excused its moral failings because its intentions are good. That’s not exceptionalism?

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  • xofpi

    Chomsky’s point was clear to me, and apparently to most who have written about the “debate.”

    Harris insisted that Chomsky weigh the two attacks based on the intentions behind them, then accused Chomsky of seeking moral equivalency. Chomsky said the case could be made that the al-Shifa bombing was worse, because al-Qaeda recognized the humanity of its victims–that was part of what made the act of terror so terrible–but the Clinton administration apparently viewed the victims of its attack–including those who would not be getting the malaria medications the factory produced–as “collatoral damage”–essentially no more human than the ants one steps on when walking down the street.

    But his main point is that we should be skeptical of the stated intentions of entities that commit violence to attain whatever ends. They all say and even think they’re going “good.” The burden was on Harris to show why claiming to kill in the name of “democracy” and “Enlightenment” values is more valid than claiming to kill the name of Allah. He wanted Chomsky to buy that premise. There was no reason to think Chomsky would, given his decades of argument against it.

  • Jim Reed

    Eisenhower did topple the democracy in Iran and install the Shaw to protect oil interests, but that was long ago in the past. What can we do about it now? Outside of invading Iraq, most of our interventions were way in the past. The world needs to move beyond those times.

  • DKeane123

    I don’t think he is arguing that the US can be excused entirely. He is talking about whether two acts are somehow equivalent. In our own court system we have different penalties for differing crimes because intent is important.

    http://criminal.lawyers.com/felonies/blogs/archives/2977-the-legal-difference-between-murder-homicide.html

  • xofpi

    The question of moral equivalency (or moral comparison based on intention) in foreign policy is a red herring. The underlying premise is that all acts can go on a scale, where, no matter the result, you can rate which are closest to “good” and which to “bad,” and give a pass to the former. On this view, though the war in Iraq has caused massive loss of life, displacement and political chaos, it’s somehow “better” than the 9/11 attacks. But what are the criteria used to make that judgment?

  • Jim Reed

    Whoever has the most advanced military power gets the biggest vote.

  • cranefly

    Sam Harris is a violent religious fundamentalist as far as I can tell. Everything I’ve ever heard him say could be summarized as: “They won’t convert, so it’s okay to kill them.” Just because you don’t wear a magic hat or read from a magic book doesn’t mean you are more logical, more humane, or more innocent.

  • seashell

    The underlying premise is that all acts can go on a scale, where, no matter the result, you can rate which are closest to “good” and which to “bad,” and give a pass to the former.

    Exactly. The US and Israel have equated terrorism with the most evil and criminal acts possible and any retaliation against it, no matter how disproportionate, is acceptable and not to be criticized. This attitude ignores the political reality that for those without a military and state apparatus at their disposal, terrorism is a rational policy choice.

  • DKeane123

    “The underlying premise is that all acts can go on a scale, where, no matter the result” – You are talking in absolutism – I certainly disagree that any action can be dismissed “no matter the result”. But to say that the accidental bombing of a factory is somehow morally equivalent to 9/11 is a bit much. One is attempting to prevent further death – the other is designed to cause much much more.

    I feel this conversation could devolve into was it okay to drop the bomb in WWII.

  • xofpi

    “As a culture, we have clearly outgrown our tolerance for the deliberate
    torture and murder of innocents. We would do well to realize that much
    of the world has not.”

    Sam Harris, The End of Faith

  • xofpi

    Can you please address Chomsky’s charge that those acting in our name employ a calculus that treats human beings killed as a result of their “good intentions” as no more significant than ants crushed under your shoes on the street? How much time do we as Americans spend thinking about the ordinary civilians our drones kill every week? What is our responsibility for the masses murdered during the war our government threw under completely false pretenses in Iraq?

    And, yes, what is our responsibility for the hundreds of thousands murdered in our parents and grandparents’ names in Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Why is that question a devolution? Is it no longer valid to ask?

  • cmbennett01

    Zingers like Harris’s arguments are “so ludicrous as to be embarrassing.” might be what passes for a “take-down” these days, but I’d prefer a cogent argument to insults. But hey, not “being polite” is all the rage these days. You can elevate hyperbole, rhetoric and unfounded accusations above rational argument as long as it serves your purpose. Chomsky does a lot of that, and it seems Mr. Aghapur is a quick study in the technique. Sam Harris has a habit of taking himself down on occasion but I’d say in this exchange it’s pretty obvious who has the intellectual high ground.

  • DKeane123

    Do you think in the term “we” he is specifically talking about America. Do you think Japan could be in there and a whole bunch of other countries?

  • cmbennett01

    Sam Harris is arguing there is a fundamental difference between causing unintentional harm to innocents and setting out to intentionally cause harm. That is a distinction that many people find reasonable. It has nothing to do with American exceptionalism. You can charge the US with incompetence or negligence if you have facts to support that, but the actions of the US are fundamentally different from those of al-Qaida simply because their intention is to harm the innocent.

  • xofpi

    In the context (the aftermath of My Lai), he’s clearly talking about the US.

    One thing Harris (or his defenders) never seriously addresses, other than to pay occasional lip service to the need for “atonement” and “reparations,” is the very high price the US and other Western countries exacted from the rest of the world in order to have the luxury of “outgrowing” our tolerance for murder and torture. He wants to condemn the “red barbarity”: of the rest of the world while glossing over and nodding helplessly toward the violence in our own past–let alone the violence we continue to exercise in other countries for the purpose of our own alleged “national security.” This tendency to not really deal with the US’s abuses of its superpower seems to be the result of a quasi-religious faith in the “intentions” of our government. This is exactly what Chomsky was talking about.

  • cmbennett01

    Your not really making your point there. There’s one word in there you might not have noticed. Can you guess which one it is?

  • xofpi

    Why don’t you just tell me.

  • cmbennett01

    deliberate. In case you missed it, that was kind of the point of the whole argument.

  • xofpi

    I did not miss that term. Do you think any other culture would cop to tolerating the deliberate torture and murder of innocents? Which ones?

  • xofpi

    “Consider the recent conflict in Iraq: If the situation had been
    reversed, what are the chances that the Iraqi Republican Guard,
    attempting to execute a regime change on the Potomac, would have taken
    the same degree of care to minimize civilian casualties? What are the
    chances that Iraqi forces would have been deterred by our use of human
    shields? (What are the chances we would have used human
    shields?) What are the chances that a routed American government would
    have called for its citizens to volunteer to be suicide bombers? What
    are the chances that Iraqi soldiers would have wept upon killing a
    carload of American civilians at a checkpoint unnecessarily? You should
    have, in the ledger of your imagination, a mounting column of zeros.”
    –Another of Sam Harris’s famous “thought experiments”

    What is the chance that the situation would have been reversed? About zero?

  • xofpi

    Many Americans find this distinction reasonable. Does that, therefore, make it reasonable?

  • Tigger Too

    You’re kidding, right? RIGHT? The Iraq War was completely bogus from its very inception, based upon false, trumped-up charges and intentional misinformation promulgated by the Bush/Cheney Regime as a means of luring the U.S. into a preemptive military conflict against a country that wasn’t even involved with the 9/11 attacks. The Bush administration basically relied and preyed upon the American people’s and Congress’ shock, dismay, anger and fear, and ultimately our stupidity, in the wake of 9/11, tugging on the strings of the fervor of our patriotism and desire to avenge the deaths of the victims of this atrocity. They lied to the citizens, our government and even the United Nations regarding the actual perpetrators of the attacks, the culpability of Iraq’s dictatorial leader, Saddam Hussein, and the alleged presence of WMD’s. Instead, the U.S. should have initiated its war against Afghanistan, the source of the Islamic militant extremists of al-Qaeda, and the monster behind 9/11, Osama bin Laden. (You’ll note that al-Qaeda didn’t even EXIST in Iraq until after we invaded their country, and its destruction precipitated the Arab Spring phenomenon and the eventual rise of ISIS.)

    I won’t even get into how badly the Iraq War has decimated their country, damaged America’s reputation amongst the rest of the world, and upset the balance of power in the Middle East. Let it suffice to say that it’s been costly beyond measure to all involved.

    The U.S. inserted itself in Middle East issues and the nations in that part of the world decades ago, and we have maintained our presence there. Sure, other previous administrations have continued these policies, to our country’s detriment. However, the Bush/Cheney Regime is the only one that started an unnecessary, bogus and preemptive war against Iraq and endangered not only the stability of the entire Middle East region, but has put our citizens in peril as well. And not only is this situation going to continue, it’s going to get even worse. As long as A SINGLE U.S. SOLDIER occupies ONE SQUARE FOOT of space in ANY Islamic nation, Muslim countries the world over will not only resent us, they’ll escalate their attacks against America, both here and abroad.

  • xofpi

    Politeness is not “the intellectual high ground.” Have you ever heard the term “sealioning?” I’d never heard it until I saw it aptly applied to Harris’s whole tack.

  • cmbennett01

    When Americans commit war crimes we put them on trial. It is not the policy of the American government to commit war crimes. When al-Qaida commits atrocities they don’t “cop to murder of innocents” because they don’t consider you to be innocent. When they dismember shias, alive, with power tools, it’s because they are apostates and they deserve it.

  • xofpi

    Whose definition of war crimes are we talking about here? Not the Geneva Convention’s surely, or we would have seen some high level war crime trials from the Bush administration. Or do you want to excuse them from standards we’d apply to Serbians or Arabs?

  • DKeane123

    He may have used My Lai as an example – but in my opinion he was talking more about principles that span national borders.

    As an atheist, I’m not very interested in atonement or faith. As a white male – I’d have a lot more atonement to do than just what my nation has done over it’s lifetime. Of course we see this in other countries other than the US (Japan, China, Australia). It has to do with being human and having power (Guns, Germs, and Steel) than being “western” – we are not unique to the world (either from a national perspective or even religious). Do we abuse that power sometimes? Yes, absolutely.

    But our “atrocities” today are nothing like they used to be, or moral compass has changed from the days when it was a okay to throw Japanese in internment camps and fire bomb Dresden and Tokyo – things we wouldn’t allow today.

  • cmbennett01

    Rational argument is the the intellectual high ground. Hyperbole and insults are not a substitute for rational argument whether it is polite or not. If Chomsky has a rational argument he should make it. otherwise it’s noise.

  • xofpi

    Where do Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo fit in your scheme of things? Where does the Iraq war fit, for that matter?

  • xofpi

    Chomsky’s argument was rational enough for me and most others who expressed their thoughts about this exchange. Harris argues, irrationally some might say, that intentions (which we can only guess at based on what actors tell us) must be taken into account when considering the morality of violence. Chomsky points out that almost any instance of violence can be justified by an assertion that the perpetrator’s intentions were “good.” On the al Qaeda side, they pin their intentions on religion. On the US side, they pin it on “democracy” and “national security.” We take it on faith that that’s what our wars are about. Harris apparently has more faith than most in those stated intentions.

    Chomsky also explained why he was not willing to play along with Harris: Harris made errors about Chomsky’s views and didn’t correct them. Having decades of experience debating opponents, I think, Chomsky

  • JRCowles

    “Professing benign intentions is the norm for those who carry out atrocities and crimes,” Chomsky points out, and so the claim the U.S. means less harm …

    ===============
    Thus Chomsky sidesteps the important issue of intent in assessing morality. If intent is irrelevant, then there is no distinction between negligent manslaughter and premeditated murder. If intent is important, then we are back to the question of dealing with the extent to which the U.S. intended to kill non-combatants in the strike against the pharmaceutical facility. The 9/11 attacks OTOH were prima facie intentional. Chomsky is reluctant to concede this difference and so sidesteps the whole issue of intent & degrees thereof.

  • seashell

    Do you think in the term “we” he is specifically talking about America. Do you think Japan could be in there and a whole bunch of other countries?

    Not unless Japan and a bunch of other countries also have federal governments located on a Potomac River.

  • xofpi

    Chomsky continually addresses this issue. On the other hand, neither Harris nor his apologists seem capable of addressing Chomsky’s point about the moral calculus the US makes to write off the human lives that get in the way of its “well-intentioned” firepower and wind up “collateral damage.” The best Harris can muster is lip service. “Too bad, but we mean well.” Is that really good enough?

  • Craptacular

    “When Americans commit war crimes we put them on trial.” – cmbennett01

    LOL. Unless they are CIA psychological contractors, a past or sitting president/vice president, presidential/vice presidential staff member, legal counsel for the president, etc.

    Take a peek at the history of the US prosecuting war criminals from within its own ranks. Then look at the history of the US prosecuting whistleblowers. Then tell me again how the “we put Americans that commit war crimes” on trial.

    Ever hear of the My Lai Massacre? How many “war criminals” were prosecuted then and served time for killing an entire village?

    Edit: By the way, I’m pretty sure the soldiers were killing the villagers on purpose.

  • Craptacular

    “But our “atrocities” today are nothing like they used to be, or moral compass has changed from the days when it was a okay to throw Japanese in internment camps and fire bomb Dresden and Tokyo – things we wouldn’t allow today.” – DKeane123

    Like the US drone program? Like the invasion of Iraq on false pretenses? Like renditioning or disappearing people to torture them?

  • JRCowles

    I don’t know that that is what Harris is saying, however. I don’t know that Harris denies criminal culpability in, e.g., the pharmaceutical bombing.

    A valid comparison of that to the 9/11 attacks would require one to demonstrate that, somewhere deep in the Executive Branch, there was a cabal of people — the President, SecState, SecDef, DCI, etc. — who got together and said “Hot damn! Let’s kill as many Africans as possible”, and proceeded to do just that. I.e., that the killing of Africans was — per se — the purpose of the attack, just as the purpose of the 9/11 attacks was, per se, the killing of Americans.

    The difference is the difference between negligent manslaughter or depraved indifference (or whatever the appropriate term of art is), on the one hand — the pharmaceutical attack — and premeditated capital murder, the 9/11 attack,on the other.

    I read Harris as asserting that the pharmaceutical attack is of the former nature, whereas the 9/11 attack is of the latter.

    OTOH, and in all fairness, I have not read “The End of Faith” in some time, and am going on my best recollection.

    JC

  • xofpi

    You completely miss the point. People at that level of government do not think of human beings in the radius of their firepower as human beings. They think of them as potential or actual collateral damage. The question is not whether this attitude is “equivalent” to that of al Qaeda’s leadership, but whether this is a moral attitude on its own terms. Do you think it is?

  • JRCowles

    I do not presume to know how govmnt officials at that level think, not having access to their subjective thought processes. All I can know, all anyone can know, are attitudes as revealed through publicly examinable evidence. So the key question pertains to evidence of the intent behind the pharmaceutical attack and the 9/11 attack, i.e., the kind of evidence that would be admitted in a criminal trial, not some purely subjective estimate of others’ attitudes. Even then, the issue of actual “per-se” intent remains relevant. There is no contradiction between (1) people considering other humans as mere collateral damage and (2) nevertheless not setting out with the deliberate intent to kill humans. I don’t particularly care about snakes, but if I run over a snake on my way to the market, that does not warrant the conclusion that my purpose in driving my car was to kill snakes. My purpose was to go to the market.

    Are there — as there may be — emails, telephone transcripts, etc., saying “Gee let’s kill Africans”? The ABSENCE of this evidence, if it is absent, exonerates no one, but it only gets you as far as negligent manslaughter, not capital murder.

  • xofpi

    Again, you dodge the question. And then you go on blithely comparing the human lives accidentally lost to our tactical incursions abroad to snakes killed on the road. Whoops! Sorry, survivors of the “snakes” our missiles accidentally run over. We’d pause to weep but we have more important things to do. Our intentions were good, so don’t feel too bad.

  • JRCowles

    I’m sorry you insist on reading what I’m NOT saying instead of reading what I AM saying. I’m trying to raise an issue of evidentiary standards.

    If you were a DA who was prosecuting a defendant for a capital crime, one of the things you would have to prove would be prior intent. You would have to prove that the defendant, sometime before the commission of the crime, actually PREMEDITATED & PLANNED the killing.

    If the best that you, as the DA, could do would be to tell the court “You see, I know how people like this think” — if that’s the best you could do — your case would be lost.

    Given the lack of evidence substantiating prior intent / premeditation, the charge of capital murder would be a gross overreach. You should’ve gone for some charge of manslaughter — negligent manslaughter, “man-1”, “man-2”, etc. — but not capital murder.

    My question to you is “How serious a charge would Chomsky’s evidence — objective, publicly examinable evidence — sustain?”

    Now, granted, this is not a criminal trial. But even outside a courtroom, a person making statements this serious should have evidence to back up those statements that appeal to something more substantive than mere subjective states of mind.

    JC

  • xofpi

    You yourself just demonstrated a casual lack of concern for innocent lives lost to our government’s well-intentioned crusades overseas. You compared them to roadkill. If you are so dismissive of these victims, what makes you think our government’s leaders who make the decision to use violence as a foreign policy tool are any more concerned?

    Incidentally, there’s an excellent Chomsky-skeptical examination of the “evidence” going into the al-shifa bombing at a blog run by someone calling himself Old Hickory. I think you’d find it interesting.

  • Base612

    Pardon me, but you seem to be missing the much greater points that Chomsky was making.

    1) Harris (and you) are saying that intent is the standard by which we delineate civilized people vs savages and terrorists. Chomsky rightly calls this a straw-man argument. Consider this:

    9/11 killed a few thousand people in the US. It was intended to do so. It was utter barbarism and that is undisputed.

    The US, by imposing sanctions on Iraq killed (according to UNICEF) over a half million children under the age of 5 (not to mention the scores of others that were also killed).

    Let me stipulate (for the sake of this argument) that the US was never intending to kill 500,000 children by these sanctions, but was intending to turn up the heat on an acknowledged dictator. Does this make 9/11 worse than the sanctions against Iraq? Harris appears to believe it does. Chomsky disagrees. This is the crux of this discussion.

    I, for one, wholly agree with Chomsky that the intent does not justify the ends. To make matters worse for the US it is not like these children all died at the same moment. They died over the course of years. We knew they were suffering and we chose to continue on our mission to starve out a people and generate so much misery that they would overthrow their government. It is an utterly heinous and callous policy. Intents do not change this and they certainly do not justify it.

    2) Intent is wholly subjective. Harris, for all of his intellect, is incredibly myopic in that he sees matters in black and white. About almost everything, it would seem. However, most of the time, people’s intent are, to them, righteous and worthy. Our intent in the above example was to remove a brutal dictator. ISIS’ intent seemingly is the defense of their faith. They believe that they are doing something that is divine and for a greater good. Does that make it so? To them: yes, to everyone else: of course not.

    So despite the horror that ISIS is reigning down upon people in Iraq and Syria (and Libya and….?) should we give them a pass simply because they are doing something that they intend to be ‘good’? I don’t. I hope you don’t as well.

    Harris obviously does not for ISIS but he clearly does when it comes to the US. And that is the very definition of American Exceptionalism. It is why many of us see Harris as just another garden variety neocon (honestly not a very compelling one either…). At the end of the day he is just that.

    3) If you happened to catch the 3 hour discussion between Cenk Uger and Sam Harris a few months ago you may have noticed that Harris justifies the use of torture and he does so by saying that torture, as bad as it is, is better than a much more horrible consequence of war: Collateral Damage. I find Harris entirely inconsistent here (though he is frequently). If collateral damage is such an awful thing how can he then justify the bombing of the pharmaceutial factory citing the “good intent” of the US if it caused such a horrible by-product?

    Harris seems to contradict himself on this and so many other points. His logical gymnastics are a consequence of, I believe, sad position of being an american apologist. Sad but true Sam, you are just another rightwing hack.

    My 2 cents. Thanks for reading.

  • JRCowles

    You are grossly over-interpreting my metaphor, the point of which was intent, not any ontological similarity between people & snakes. That you insist on focusing on the latter means that your arguments are thin.

    Again — one more time — I ask for objective, publicly examinable evidence of intent. Do you have such? I suspect not. Hence your emphasis on my metaphor.

    JC

  • JRCowles

    “To make matters worse for the US it is not like these children all died at the same moment. They died over the course of years.”

    You put your finger on why this analogy with the pharmaceuticals attack breaks down. Yes, the starving of children was morally reprehensible because its consequences were protracted enough for the effects to be known. That is why — yes indeed — “matters [were] worse”. The destruction of the pharmaceutical facility was a single missile strike that was over & done in a matter of minutes. In order for the 2 to be comparable, the latter would have had to be an actual military campaign of similar duration. Apples and oranges.

    0Intent is wholly subjective.”

    That would be hot news for DAs, ADAs, and prosecuting attorneys, to say nothing of legal theorists who are accustomed to using objective evidence as a matter of course to establish subjective intent. Otherwise, no one could ever be convicted of a capital crime. Ask the guy who prosecuted Tsarnaev.

    JC

  • xofpi

    Worth a lot more than two cents. Thank you! Very well put

  • Base612

    Why thank you!

  • xofpi

    Base612 does a superb job of explaining why your and Harris’s appeal for evidence of “intent” is irrelevant to the moral/ethical problems here. They sidestep the actual accusation , which is that the U.S. acts with deprived indifference *as a rule* to the lives of ordinary people in Muslim dominated countries. Only when it serves our alleged “national interest” do our leaders even pretend to care about ordinary people in those countries.

    The burden of proof is actually on you and Harris that the government’s stated intent is genuine and that good intentions mitigate bad results.

  • Base612

    First, as you said above, this is not a court of law. Intent as circumscribed by our legal system is different than what we are discussing here. You are, as Sam might say “in the weeds” on this.

    Second, regarding the Pharmaceutical attack. This is just one example. But in this example, the US did just execute one missile strike, that is true. They did know what they were bombing, and they did have the ability to understand the consequences of this action. Determination of collateral damage is certainly one part of the calculation that goes into making the decision to drop the bomb. If they knew that it was a pharm. factory, and they knew that there were little to no other options for these drugs they could easily understand the ramifications of taking this factory out. Additionally, to my understanding, the ‘evidence’ that this was involved in bomb making was that there were some substances detected that were traced back to this facility that are created when making bombs AS WELL AS other things. In other words it is not like this was a slam dunk. Yet they made the choice to bomb it anyway.

    So given the fact that the evidence was somewhat unclear, and that the ramifications would be extremely easy for the US government to understand, it is certainly reasonable to think that the actions of the US, regardless of intent, were neither appropriate nor proportional considering the potential collateral damage. Deciding to bomb this factory anyway kind of makes Chomksy’s point.

    But more broadly, there are many other examples of the US having good intent, but still committing unimaginable crimes. The sanctions against Iraq are a better example of this.

    So do you think that the intent is a good enough differentiator to say that 9//1 was ‘worse’ (whatever that means…) than the sanctions against Iraq given the incredible cost? Recall that Madeleine Albright said, when asked about this exact thing, “we think the price is worth it”.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0WDCYcUJ4o

    Do you think that our ‘good intent’ justifies this or somehow mitigates our crimes?

    If the answer is no then have some bad news for you: you agree with Chomsky too.

  • Base612

    I would go so far as to underscore Chomsky’s point that intent does not justify neither the end nor the means. This is a central tenet of Harris position. That somehow we are better because we don’t intend to do bad things, regardless of how bad these things end up.

    And, of course, there is the hypocrisy that you speak of so well. It is clear that this is just a ploy on the part of our government to promote our positions.

  • xofpi

    Exactly! That’s Harris’s basic argument: intent justifies the ends and the means. And he apparently wants that to be taken as a self-evident axiom.

  • Base612

    The other logic question is about the degree of suffering and mayhem.

    Is the intentional killing of one in an act of terrorism worse than the collateral damage of thousands in a “well intended” military action? Even if the evidence that the pharmaceutical plant was involved in the bomb making, if it could lead do the collateral deaths of tens or hundreds of thousands from illness, and you either knew or should have known, does intent absolve the U.S. of the responsibility of these deaths? Or at least lessen the perception of the heinousness of the act to that if a single, intended terroristic death?

  • Base612

    The point Chomsky made to refute this is that the callous disregard of human life as collateral damage in the pharmaceutical bombing makes the U.S. Just as culpable for their crimes as al-Qaida and makes these crimes just as heinous.

    The other point Chomsky makes is that intent is a subjective value. Is ISIS believing they are defending their faith a good justification for their actions? We exercise all sorts of punitive, hypocritical, and wrong headed acts all the time. We invaded Iraq for no legitimate reason, while claiming it was for our protection against WMD (a lie) and for humanitarian reasons (a lie) and to free the Iraqis (who knows if it is a lie, but it sure is ridiculous). So do these good intentions, real or not, mean that we are better than al-Qaida?

    WHat if al-Qaida said that they attacked the pentagon, a military establishment,and the Twin Towers, that housed various government offices, and that they did so for good reasons, I.e not to hurt innocent civilians but to defend themselves against American imperialism, and that the additional deaths were just collateral damage? Would that make them justified in their action? Would you say that their intent was pure? Would you buy that even if it was?

  • Base612

    I would go further and say that state like the U.S. AND Israel define terrorism as those acts that are committed by a non-state actor, that, if committed by a state, is somehow ok, but does, justify, a totally unproportional response.

  • Base612

    Just to be clear, it was not an accidental bombing of a factory. It was the intentional bombing of a factory that they thought could be involved in the creation of bombs. Wrongly.

    However the question that Chomsky would ask is whether, given that the US knew it was a pharmaceutical factory, and that the destruction of this pharmaceutical factory with imperil hundreds of thousands of people.

  • Base612

    Crushing indictment

  • Base612

    This is such an obnoxious quote from Harris. It seems to escape Harris that, despite all of his pontificating about how brutal the revolutionary guard would treat us if they invaded us, it seems to escape him that, rather than Iraq attempting regime change on the Potomic, it was us who attempted regime change on the Euphrates. In this case in a place known by many as THE REAL WORLD it was us who were the barbarians here. Not Iraq. We invaded them for no reason. We tortured their people. We murdered their men, and women, and children.

    it is revolting that he would attempt to somehow, after the misery that we imposed on Iraq, still classify us as the good guys despite our crimes, and them as the barbarians despite the fact that the only regime change on the Potomic is being carried out by lobbyists for Lockheed, Exxon, and AIPAC.

  • Base612

    You have got to be kidding. Have you forgotten the last 12 years?

  • Base612

    Brilliant connect. Very well said.

  • Base612

    How about sanctions that kill a half million children? Not atrocious enough? Needs to get over a cool mill before you take notice?

  • cmbennett01

    A perfect example of why moral relativism is a bankrupt philosophy. Your favorite book or restaurant is a subjective. Whether you should fly airplanes into buildings or cut peoples heads off on the internet is not. If you or Chomsky cant make that distinction you are too far gone to help.

  • Base612

    Chomsky is the one being consistent here. Not Harris. Chomsky says that they are both wrong. He just also happens to be skeptical of governments, ours included, that claim to be altruistic, yet engage in the same ultimate behavior (often worse) than the terrorists. Their claims are irrelevant if their actions are morally bankrupt.

    One needs only to look at our invasion of Iraq justified by all sorts of nonsensical reasons, none of which happened to be true.

    He is not excusing terrorists. Harris are excusing the state led slaughter of innocent people.

  • Base612

    It sure seems to me that it is Harris engaging in this moral relativism.

  • Al

    Of course, I’m joking.

  • Al

    This is true. Despite railing against moral relativism, Harris slides off into relativism in most of his political writing. It’s nothing new with the pseudo liberal war hawks. Killing civilians is wrong, but when the US or Israel do it, it can be justified and described as collateral damage. Torture is wrong, but when the US does it, it is an ethical necessity in the war on terror. And on it goes.
    Chomsky is an ethical universalist, Harris is not.

  • Al

    Harris condemned Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, though I doubt his sincerity considering his described those interned there in somewhat pseudo racist terms:

    “it seems obvious that the misapplication of torture should be far less troubling to us than collateral damage: there are, 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”.

  • Al

    I would also add that emailing somebody asking for a public debate after grossly distorting their views, which is exactly what Harris did to Chomsky, is not the behaviour of an intellectually serious or honest person.

  • xofpi

    Harris likes to tip his hat ceremoniously to “liberal pieties,” as if to show he’s carefully considered everything, and then turn around and stomp them into the ground.

  • xofpi

    That’s something Harris’s defenders are curiously blind to. It’s amazing to see them scratching their heads over Chomsky’s supposed incivility. I mean Harris got what he came for–he’s now being talked about in the same sentence with a giant of twentieth/twenty-first century thought all over the internet.

  • Craptacular

    “I don’t particularly care about snakes, but if I run over a snake on my way to the market, that does not warrant the conclusion that my purpose in driving my car was to kill snakes. My purpose was to go to the market.” – JRCowles

    This is the very attitude Chomsky talks about…treating the humans that stand between yourself and your goal as pests to be dealt with…without even thinking of them as people.

  • xofpi

    How about whether you should kill civilians with drones and missiles? What’s the absolute word on that?

  • Base612

    Not even pests to be dealt with, but incidental factors who’s deaths or demise are inconsequential to our national interest, regardless of how important – or unimportant – it really is for our survival.

  • xofpi

    http://oldhickorysweblog.blogspot.com/2015/05/noam-chomsky-sam-harris-and-1998-cruise.html

    James Risen reported in To Bomb Sudan Plant, or Not: A Year Later, Debates Rankle New York Times 10/27/1999:

    Officials throughout the Government raised doubts up to the
    eve of the attack about whether the United States had sufficient
    information linking the factory to either chemical weapons or to bin
    Laden, according to participants in the discussions. They said senior
    diplomatic and intelligence officials argued strenuously over whether
    any target in Sudan should be attacked.

    Aides passed on their doubts to the Secretary of State, officials said. But the national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, who played a
    pivotal role in approving the strike, said in an interview that he was
    not aware of any questions about the strength of the evidence before the attack.

    In the aftermath, some senior officials moved to suppress internal
    dissent, officials said. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and a
    senior deputy, they said, encouraged State Department intelligence
    analysts to kill a report being drafted that said the bombing was not
    justified.

  • Rmj

    Intent is irrelevant. If I kill you, but I didn’t intend to, I may be legally not guilty.

    Morally? I’m always responsible for my actions, intent be damned. If it were otherwise, there’d be no morality at all. I could just say “I didn’t mean to!,” and all would be set morally aright again.

  • Rmj

    Criminal culpability is not moral culpability. Intent in criminal law is a measure of assessing the severity of a crime; it is not a measure of assessing absolute guilt.

    You may be the person who caused the death of another, but absent any intent at all, even the responsibility imposed by the standard or negligence, you aren’t legally responsible for that death, and so “not guilty” of murder.

    That doesn’t mean you didn’t kill that person, nor that you have no moral responsibility for your actions. Even without intent, you still caused their death. You don’t have to consider that a moral obligation. No law (the rule of the state) can impose it on you. But a moral system that says your intent trumps all, is no moral system at all.

  • Rmj

    To me, in the end, Chomsky proves the truth of the old adage: “Never argue with a fool. People might not be able to tell the difference.”

    Chomsky doesn’t look foolish here, but it’s clear to me Harris’ defenders can’t tell the difference.

  • JRCowles

    If intent is really irrelevant, then there would be no distinctions — legally or morally — between negligent homicide and premeditated capital murder. Those legal gradations “map” to corresponding moral gradations in the Western moral tradition.

    JC

  • xofpi

    These distinctions may be nice legally or intellectually. In practice–in day-to-day *life*–there’s no such distinction between a death caused intentionally or not. A death is a death, with all its ramifications for the family and community of the deceased.

  • JRCowles

    In that case — if “a death is a death is a death is a death” — then why bother with distinctions at all, legal or moral? The corpse is just as cold, regardless.

    JC

  • Oblique212

    Probably one of the most ignorant comments I have ever read. 300,00 civilians were killed in the Iraq war. Explain to me the “good intentions” behind this invasion.

  • xofpi

    I disagree that “intention” is the determinant of the morality of an unnatural death–or that it’s as important, in any case, as you and Harris seem to think. I agree with Chomsky that “intention” is much more slippery than Harris wants to claim. As you have pointed out, it must be proven in court, a fact that should tell you something about how reliable a person’s word about it is.

    Another thing courts take into consideration during sentencing of convicted killers, something Harris barely mentions: Does the killer feel any remorse? How does that fit into your moral calculus?

  • JRCowles

    Intention is only “slippery” if you believe, as someone in the discussion (you? don’t recall) said “Intent is wholly subjective” and therfore has no objective correlates that can be fairly & reliably used to infer intent, quite apart from what anyone says.

    JC

  • xofpi

    What is your intent in commenting on this subject? What is your intent in engaging people who disagree with you about this?

  • Baltiq6212

    The issue with these ridiculous thought experiments, is that you can’t just reverse an event. You have to reverse the entire course of history that led to said event. SO in essence not only do they provide fruitless discussion at best at worst for man of Sam’s supposed intellect, they seem utterly disingenuous and idiotic

  • xofpi

    Hence, Chomsky’s “ludicrous and embarrassing” remark. (Right on the money. It struck me exactly as that when I was reading it fresh in their exchange.)

  • Al

    It’s becoming very hard to reconcile Harris’ views with any strand of liberalism. Essentially, Harris so-called liberalism could be summed up in the following comment in The Moral Landscape (p 90):

    ” even a liberal like myself enamored as I am of thinking in terms of harm and fairness can readily see that my vision of the good life must be safeguarded from the aggressive tribalism of other. When I search my heart, I discover that I want to keep the barbarians beyond the city walls just as much as my conservative neighbors do, and I recognize that sacrifices of my own freedom may be warranted for this purpose. I expect that epiphanies of this sort couldwell multiply in the coming years”.
    Barbarians beyond the city walls? Wow.
    But how brave of him. I’m sure repressive government policies in the name of counter terrorism and national security will look to target white, middle class citizens called Sam Harris no end.

  • Burnt Orange

    If I felt the way many, many critics of American policies seem to I think I would move to another nation. The total picture painted about our intentions and policies places this country one step from Nazi Germany. Feeling this way and living day to day with this point of view would appear to make individuals just as guilty at the perpetrators of these heinous crimes against humanity.

    Just what action are you taking to bring this rogue country to heel?? Passivity and living off the fat of the land seems pretty lame. Thousands of people left Nazi Germany between 1934 to the end of the Nazi control of the country. Where is the mass exodus of morally outraged currently living here. Wonder if the new immigrants view America through the same lens as many posting here??

  • xofpi

    Love it or leave it? Is that what you’re saying?

  • Ali Mohsin Goraya

    Indeed, intent is relevant. But let’s see. When American’s bombed Iraq liberally in 2003 and then soldier’s laid their feet down on the ground, they learned that, quite contrary to what Ahmed Challabi has told them, there weren’t many Iraqis to welcome them with “sweets and garlands”. Instead there were thousands who wanted to fight. So good Americans, with all the good intentions of spreading democracy and liberty (WMD? what the fuck?) had to kill a hundred thousand people — of course for a noble cause. And, as we know today, the “seeds of democracy” are growing well and health all over that land. Applause!!

  • Ali Mohsin Goraya

    Sam is for Uncle Sam, he believes wholeheartedly in the virtue of American Empire.

  • Burnt Orange

    Not at all but with such vitriol and outright distain for America, its government and many, many of the people living here I was just wondering why live in such a place when the whole world is open for you.

    Since you only have one life why live it in such a craven and brutal place? It is almost like staying in a loveless marriage just because your spouse has money. Really if I felt like many who carry on and on about this country I would move to Italy or England. Great places to live without compromising your high standards. Or you can remain here and continue being ashamed, unhappy and just plain pissed-off about your native land. Again with only one life why waste in in a country that depresses you and enrages your sense of fair play??

  • Tigger Too

    Sorry, dude! It was early in the morning, and I hadn’t had my de rigueur three cups of coffee yet. Thus, I failed to grasp your excellent sarcastic comment. I apologize for my rant, but as you can probably tell from my remarks, anybody who puts the Bush/Cheney Regime and their failed Iraq War in ANY sort of favorable, positive light gets me going from 0 to 60 in about two seconds flat. Mea culpa…

  • Al

    Nothing wrong with a good rant and Iraq is an issue that should stem lengthly rants. The link below is worth an even larger rant. Sam is truly beyond belief

    https://soundcloud.com/samharrisorg/final-thoughts-on-chomsky

  • Al

    Harris has just released a new podcast devoted to the Chomsky emails.
    I don’t think he can really believe what he says. He denies misrepresenting Chomsky and resorts to the same ‘incivility’ argument. Despite Chomsky addressing his points and providing evidence for his claims, Harris argues that all he got back from Chomsky was abuse. Absurd.
    It’s also curious that Harris is now claiming that all he was trying to do was have a ‘conversation’ with Chomsky. Strange thing to claim after he declared on his twitter feed that he trying to arrange, in his words, ‘a debate’. A thoroughly dishonest man.

  • xofpi

    Yes, you are saying love it or leave it.

    I don’t think “love” is as easy as being uncritical.

  • Where Is Ur God Now ?

    Noam was clearly mean spirited and didn’t want a productive discussion to begin with. He stepped in with his set of prejudices and was super keen to end any discussion.

  • Tigger Too

    Yeah, good old Sam is a certifiable lunatic when it comes to his defense of an indefensible war. It’s jackasses like him who should cause society to rethink the Internet technology that brought us the “podcast!”

  • Burnt Orange

    I don’t care if you love this country. But as I said the vitriol and emotional full on attacks hurled by some might indicate a deep hatred toward their country and fellow citizens. After all the nation is nothing more then a aggregate of its institutions, people and history.

    I don’t care if you or others leave or stay. Staying might at least indicate some sense of optimism or a “silver lining” rather then the seemly complete lack of any redeeming quality within the country you currently reside and pay taxes.

    Criticize all you want it is the American way. The constant barrage with its’ connotation of some intrinsic evil lurking within the American DNA just seems at odds with the individual critics personal decisions to remain within this type of society and government matrix. Just what is being done to change the system besides braying and spewing bile.

  • xofpi

    The vitriol you think you see is coming from your own perception. Speaking for myself anyway, I don’t feel it or think I’m expressing it. I’m critical of the U.S., its history and government. How can you not be? But those aspects of this country are not all there is to it.

  • inshan september

    The issue is not ‘intent.’ Harris wants to contain his argument around an idea of being the world’s good guys and subsequently only doing bad things for good reasons. This is the the issue

  • DKeane123

    Sorry was away. They fit into imperfect systems put in place by imperfect humans – not a nefarious plot. We could get into a discussion about which countries or groups of people have commits which sins more – but it is a tiring debate – up there with the the atheist/christian conversation of who killed more people. No one gets anywhere with those conversations. I do stand by my statement – humanity has come a long way in 100 years – unfortunately the progress has not been homogeneous.

  • joeyj1220

    As someone who would fall into the “atheist” camp, I concur. There was always something about the ‘new atheists’ that bothered me. This correspondence between Chomsky and Harris confirmed for me how odious folks like Harris can be

  • xofpi

    Sam Harris, if you happen to be reading these comments: if you want to understand Chomsky’s thought, read what he has already written. Don’t come to him asking what he means by saying what you mistakenly think he is saying. And try to set your Islam-loathing, neocon attitudes aside if you want to really get it. It’s not all about you and your specific anxieties.

  • xofpi

    The Iraq war was not a nefarious plot? How do you know that? What kind of plot was it?

  • Selekon

    He actually said this:

    “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them.”

  • Al

    Notice in the initial publication of the exchange how Harris tells readers to form their own opinions. Then, when the majority of people feel like Chomsky made Harris look foolish, he immediately spins the whole thing to try and make himself look better by playing the Chomsky was uncivil card. It’s a case of form your own opinions just so long as they are favourable towards me. It’s the mark of a ‘celeb intellectual’ more interested in public image than ‘learning things’.
    As I pointed out, Harris’ claim that he was not looking for a debate is a lie, he’s just back-peddling after being humiliated.

    https://twitter.com/samharrisorg/status/591350220526485504
    It’s also comical that he’s accusing Chomsky of evasion, tricks and moralizing language. No examples provided of course. And he denies misrepresenting Chomsky. Such wonderfully honest behaviour from the author of ‘Lying’.

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  • cranefly

    yup.

  • rg57

    A statement of the form “I object to your actions, but I claim not to object” is not a mic drop. It’s ad hominem, merely the last in a string of statements that show a mind that thinks more highly of itself than is warranted.

  • rg57

    Indeed. For example, if you propose to kill me today, via meat cleaver, then I don’t think you’ll find much objection to my claim that you should be killed before you get the chance (provided there aren’t other means to stop you).

  • rg57

    Are you trying to use something that happened in 2003, to justify what happened in 2001?

  • rg57

    So therefore all surgeons are morally guilty of assault. I see.

    Can’t wait to hear your opinion of people who prescribe, manufacture, and administer chemotherapy.

  • rg57

    It was Chomsky who tied 9/11 and the pharmaceutical bombing together.

    As far as I can tell, people seem to accept that the Clinton administration believed there were weapons there, and that the immediate goal was to eliminate those weapons.

    In 9/11, the immediate goal was to harm civilians. It can’t even be doubted.

    To close our eyes to intent also requires that we close our mouths, because there’s no point.

    The US, I believe, should have done more to make up for its error. But that in no way puts the error itself into the same category as an intentional act.

  • rg57

    “Chomsky continually addresses this issue”

    No. Chomsky continually CLAIMS to address the issue. There’s a difference. (And implicit in “address” is “satisfactorily”)

  • rg57

    There is a common thought experiment where you must decide between various forms of choice A or not-A, which will result in different people (and numbers of people) being killed. But in all cases, someone will die.

    There is no moral culpability for existing in a world in which someone will die.

  • rg57

    And Chomsky’s persistent failure is to distinguish collateral damage from intentional attack.

    Harris did a good job of this by questioning what might happen if each actor in these cases had access to a “perfect weapon” which (through some extraordinary means) could be configured to not cause collateral damage. Clinton then would have attempted to bomb the factory, but the bomb would have safely returned to base upon failing to detect weapons. On the other hand, 9/11 would have happened pretty much as it did, because that was the entire point.

  • rg57

    Why should I need to learn a new word? English isn’t big enough already? Make your point.

  • rg57

    “rational enough for me”

    Ah. That’s the problem. Rationality isn’t relative. it’s demonstrable.

    “Chomsky points out that almost any instance of violence can be justified
    by an assertion that the perpetrator’s intentions were good.”

    Oh well, then. Let’s just shut down the courts. What are they for?

  • rg57

    Do you, perhaps, own a mirror?

    You can’t open with “People might not be able to tell the difference” and conclude “Chomsky doesn’t look foolish here”

  • rg57

    I recommend it. I did it myself. Oddly enough, of the two of us, I’m the one defending the US, in this instance.

  • xofpi

    It doesn’t strike you as convenient that apologists for the world’s only superpower, with a defense structure several times larger in absolute terms than the next several powers (China, Russia, India, Pakistan, UK, France, etc) combined, want to make this distinction between intention and “accident” because, they allege, we don’t mean to kill the civilians our military actions kill? Doesn’t it strike you as suspicious that this distinction is so pressing for these apologists? In effect, they’re seeking permission to not have to think about the by-standers our actions kill. I fin it highly suspicious and “interesting” that so much energy is expended on this on their side.

  • Northern_Witness

    Chomsky doesn’t sidestep the issue of intent in assessing morality. He points out that ego-based intent disguised as morality is not moral and therefore cannot be used in justification of atrocities. It is you who is fudging the issue with your false forced choice scenario and the your greater good nonsense.

    Let’s not forget that the U.S., based on its long history since its inception of coveting and interfering with other people’s lands and assets, has no one but itself to blame when other people view it with suspicion or hatred. 9/11 was just people defending themselves against U.S. invasions of their lands by bringing the reality of war home to the American people.

  • xofpi

    ” Intentions matter, but they are not all that matters.”

  • xofpi

    Those “other means” and their existence are the thorn in the side of the neocons and proponents of violence as foreign policy instrument.

  • xofpi

    Even Harris (finally) admits in his podcast response to the exchange that Chomsky was right on “literal (if pedantic) grounds” that he addresses has addressed intent, though it is true not to Harris’s satisfaction. But then why did Harris insist so hard (so hard that his defenders have fallen in line making the same false claim) in that exchange that Chomsky ignored intent?

  • Love this debate. Atheists have to make choices too, my choice has never been the ‘new atheists’ (whose crusade I don’t really consider an ‘atheist’ battle – it is something else, filled with a lot of ignorance about the many good academic studies of religion in the field). Anyway, one thing is clear: Sam Harris is a right-winger who tends towards the far right in a way similar to many of the Christians he so dislikes. And to be honest, I have no idea why Harris thought he could tackle Chomsky. I have no idea really. No right winger (not that I know) will win an argument with a top intellectual who does not give Western culture the ‘blank check’ of supremacy over other cultures. And the new atheists, who called themselves The Brights, were doing exactly that from the beginning. But that is not ‘atheism’, you can call it whatever you want (from heroism to arrogance) but it is not typically ‘atheism’. Chomsky is much more atheist in the true sense of the word than Sam Harris. Intellectuals like Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein did a lot more to demolish the underlying false claims of the Christian Right and Zionism than any of the ‘new atheists’ ever did. The latter tried to make an impact with a spectacular PR campaign in the media, with a couple of boldly titled books – but the serious arguments were delivered by a very different category of people. And this is perfectly demonstrated in this debate.

  • David Landry

    I am amazed that such a clear argument is not understood.

    Chomsky is arguing that when Harris says the US/Clinto had ‘good intentions’, this was simply a claim. Just because someone kills someone and claims they didn’t mean to do so, doesn’t mean that is a fact.

    You need to look at the evidence to see if it matches the CLIAMED intent. If it does, then we can accept the CLAIM, If the evidence doesn’t match with the CLAIMED intent, then we follow the evidence, not the CLAIM.

    In this case, Harris, without so much as examining a shred of evidence, other than what is claimed by the killers, believes (and in ‘faith in the state religion’) what the state tells him.

    Chomsky on the other hand looked at the evidence and comes to the conclusion that the evidence does not match the CLAIM, and more likely shows that Clinton and his advisers knew the factory was not a ‘weapons’ plant, that it had no connection to Bin Laden, and that destroying it would cause many thousands of innocent people to suffer and die. And when that prediction was shown to a true prediction Clinton and his advisers still did not act to mitigate the harm they had caused to innocent people, clearly showing they either wanted innocent people to die, or were completely unconcerned that they were causing innocent people to die.

    Now, you may want to argue the evidence (but that would be a hard case to make to disprove well documented evidence like this,) or you may want to try and come to some different conclusion based on that evidence (again a hard case to make,) but to say that Harris addressed the issue and Chomsky only ‘claimed’ to address the issue is absolutely nonsensical.

    The problem with you and Harris is that you are incapable (or simply wilfully ignorant) of the difference between CLAIMED intentions and what the evidence shows about a party’s intentions.

  • Northern_Witness

    Your view is a false forced choice logical error. For example, the stated intent can be different from the actual intent as is often the case with political defences. In addition, an immoral intent can be disguised even from the person making the statement.

    Your choice of negligent manslaughter and premeditated murder is unfortunate as both are punishable crimes. Manslaughter can be premeditated both with malice or in the sense of being reckless. Intention is present in both.

    The 9/11 attacks were intentional but could have been viewed as manslaughter as the perpetrators were seen as provoked and acting in response to intentional U.S. actions in the Middle East. The perpetrators could even have been found innocent due to mental illness if they suffered directly as a result of U.S. “interventions” in the Middle East.

  • Greg

    Intent is not relevant in strict liability cases in which the activity is inherently dangerous, such as dropping a bomb.

  • Greg

    Intent is not relevant in strict liability cases in which the activity is inherently dangerous, such as dropping a bomb. In this case, Clinton would be liable for all damages and injuries independent of his intentions. Chomsky is saying that Clinton knew or should of known that a lot of deaths would occur, so these deaths were foreseeable. Also, this attack was retaliation for the embassy bombings, but the people killed because of a lack of medicine had nothing to do with the embassy bombing. They were innocent, yet Clinton attacked anyways.

  • Janfrans Zuidema

    “Calls for “civil discourse” ought to be criticized and ignored if such
    civility would exclude facts and perspectives necessary for questioning
    dominant powers.”

    That’s why some of us draw Muhammad cartoons…