"There was once a civilization that was the greatest in the
"It was able to create a continental super-state that stretched
from ocean to ocean, and from northern climes to tropics and
deserts. Within its dominion lived hundreds of millions of
people, of different creeds and ethnic origins.
"One of its languages became the universal language of much
of the world, the bridge between the peoples of a hundred
lands. Its armies were made up of people of many nationalities,
and its military protection allowed a degree of peace and
prosperity that had never been known. The reach of this civilization’s
commerce extended from Latin America to China, and everywhere
"And this civilization was driven more than anything, by invention.
Its architects designed buildings that defied gravity. Its
mathematicians created the algebra and algorithms that would
enable the building of computers, and the creation of encryption.
Its doctors examined the human body, and found new cures for
disease. Its astronomers looked into the heavens, named the
stars, and paved the way for space travel and exploration.
"Its writers created thousands of stories. Stories of courage,
romance and magic. Its poets wrote of love, when others before
them were too steeped in fear to think of such things.
"When other nations were afraid of ideas, this civilization
thrived on them, and kept them alive. When censors threatened
to wipe out knowledge from past civilizations, this civilization
kept the knowledge alive, and passed it on to others.
"While modern Western civilization shares many of these traits,
the civilization I’m talking about was the Islamic world
from the year 800 to 1600, which included the Ottoman Empire
and the courts of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, and enlightened
rulers like Suleiman the Magnificent.
"Although we are often unaware of our indebtedness to this
other civilization, its gifts are very much a part of our
heritage. The technology industry would not exist without
the contributions of Arab mathematicians. Sufi poet-philosophers
like Rumi challenged our notions of self and truth. Leaders
like Suleiman contributed to our notions of tolerance and
While it's a pleasant surprise to find a Republican who has some awareness of history, I can just imagine the reaction of the rank-and-file wingnut base when one of her opponents in the battle for the Presidential nomination runs across this and drags it out to use against her. They'll have her being born in Kenya before they're done.
First off, in case anybody was wondering -- no, I was not personally affected by the attack. Roseburg is 260 miles from here, and nobody I know lives there. There was a period several years ago when I visited that general area of Oregon regularly, but it's very different from Portland -- rural, conservative, and steeped in gun culture. Roseburg has only 22,000 people and it's the biggest town in the area.
As is often the case with mass murders, it will take some time to pin down the killer's motive. (I have my reasons for not using the names of mass murderers. See also Earth-Bound Misfit.) He was a student in the class where he committed the murders, and the teacher was among those killed, so there may have been some personal issue there. But it has also been reported that he specifically targeted Christians and described himself online as "not religious, but spiritual" and opposed to organized religion.
Knowing how the wingnutosphere has been blowing up a few cases of Christian business people being made to obey anti-discrimination laws into full-blown hysteria about "persecution", I can just imagine what they'll make of this once they get hold of it. So it's necessary to call attention to some basic points.
First, it seems unlikely that the killer had much in the way of a coherent ideology of any kind. He may well have been an atheist, but "not religious, but spiritual" is the kind of mealy-mouthed mush one commonly gets from people who have indeed abandoned religion (far from rare these days) but haven't given any serious thought to what that means or what words like "religious" or "spiritual" mean. He seems to have been one of those alienated, socially-isolated, angry loners who feel frustrated at how little impression they make on the people around them, and glom on to some charismatic and frightening ideology (it hardly matters which one, though this guy's choice -- Naziism -- is an obvious option) in the hopes that its glamour and intimidating qualities will rub off on them. Under different circumstances the same person might have become a KKK member, a Muslim extremist, even a militant Christian fundamentalist.
Second, we who have thought seriously about religion and fervently oppose it must take every opportunity to make it clear what that means. Christianity and Islam are the enemy -- but most individual Christians and Muslims are not. Yes, the violent extremists and those who seek to impose religious taboos on society by legislation are the enemy, but the great majority of people who call themselves Christian or Muslim are much more victims than villains. The explanatory metaphor of disease is a useful one here -- the fact that one opposes AIDS and wishes to see it eradicated does not mean that one has hatred or violent intentions towards people infected with AIDS. Quite the opposite. I do regard religions as mental parasites, harmful "memes" in the original Richard Dawkins sense, which have developed to infect human brains and alter behavior to help themselves spread from brain to brain. Yes, I hate Christianity and Islam, but I want to see their adherents cured, not killed. A murderous sociopath who acts in the name of hatred of religion is no different from, and no better than, any other murderous sociopath who acts in the name of anything else.
This guy is not evidence of a general atheist problem any more than the Charleston church murderer was evidence of a general white-people problem. They're both evidence of a general violent-sociopath problem.
Finally, I'm not oblivious to the fact that, as always seems to happen after mass murders like this, most of the blogosphere is once again making it about guns and gun control. I'm frankly too weary and nauseated with that whole argument to get into it again, but I'll reiterate a few painfully-obvious points.
While I have nothing against basic controls like background checks, it's absurd to think they could prevent attacks like this. They probably would prevent some impulsive murders and suicides, but in the case of premeditated mass killings, a determined person will always be able to get hold of a gun, no matter what the law is. If the government tried to ban most private gun ownership and disarm the general population, it would just do to guns what similar bans have done to drugs and prostitution -- drive them underground, out of reach of any regulation or supervision. Besides, in that scenario we would likely no longer be worrying about isolated mass shootings, because we'd be preoccupied with the all-out civil war which would engulf the country.
Countries like Israel which are serious about stopping mass killings at vulnerable places like schools require armed guards at such sites. The primary concern is terrorism, but armed guards would be equally effective at stopping a lone crank like the one in Roseburg. It's hard to see what else would be.
There are other countries where private ownership of guns is common but mass shootings are rare or nonexistent. Guns are not the problem and laws restricting them would have little impact on the problem. The problem lies in the sheer number and degree of aberration of those angry, hate-filled loners we're generating -- that is, it's basically a problem with American culture. See the higher rates of violence in red states and in conservative areas generally, relative to more liberal areas, despite the fact that (different local laws notwithstanding) anyone determined to get hold of guns can easily do so regardless of where in the country they are. See the high rates of violent crime in the 1980s vs. much lower rates today, though accessibility of guns hasn't changed. These variations represent cultural differences. That's where the roots of horrors like the one in Roseburg -- and the clues to what we can really do about them -- are to be found.
By 60% to 32%, Americans believe that any budget deal must fully fund Planned Parenthood, and if there is a government shutdown, 40% will blame Republicans while only 26% will blame Democrats. This was never a winning issue for the wingnuts -- most media reports I've seen on the videos that started this latest kerfluffle have mentioned the fact that they were deceptively edited to give the false impression that Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue, so voters outside the right-wing bubble are well aware that this claim is a lie.
Among the Muslim migrants arriving in Germany, substantial numbers are abandoning Islam and converting to Christianity. Likely their true motive is to improve their odds of winning permanent residency, since Islamic law (as actually applied by some Middle Eastern regimes such as ISIS) imposes the death penalty for any Muslim who renounces Islam, and a civilized country won't deport refugees back to where they might face such a fate. But if people will convert from one religion to another out of expediency, they probably don’t have much of a fanatical commitment to either one. Once they’re settled in Germany they’ll easily be swept along in the general trend toward secularism among the general population in Europe which is making religion meaningless, regardless of which religion a person starts out with. They're not the kind of people Europe needs to worry about. What Europe needs to worry about is slimebuckets like this guy who refuse to assimilate. Like the fundies in the US, they are getting fewer but remain dangerous.
By now everyone knows John Boehner is resigning as Speaker of the House, effective at the end of next month -- though as to his reasons, one can only guess. There's already a frenzy of speculation about whom the Republican majority will choose as the new Speaker. One Kevin McCarthy, a moderate (by current standards) Republican of the same general ilk as Boehner himself, is said to have the best shot, but the wingnut factions will doubtless hold out for a lunatic from among their own ranks.
Please put down the popcorn for a minute and remember that the Speaker of the House is next in line for the Presidency after the Vice President. If something were to happen to both Obama and Biden at the same time, it's the Speaker who would step into the Oval Office.
And as scary as it is to picture Agent Orange in that position, we could do far worse. Louie Gohmert has been mentioned among the possible candidates. For that matter, there's no actual rule that the Speaker has to be a member of the House, although historically it always has been. In theory they could choose Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh or Kim Davis. Anybody. And whoever it is will be two heartbeats away from the most powerful office on the planet.
Boehner's resignation is effective at the end of October. And what's at the end of October? Halloween. Get ready to be spooked out of your wits, for real.
If you read European news websites at all, you know that for at least a couple of weeks they've been thoroughly fixated on the wave of Syrian refugees entering and crossing Europe (or trying to do so) to escape the civil war in their own country. European popular reactions range from welcoming to threatening, while national governments are going every which way, arguing among themselves about which countries should take how many people, and in some cases (notably Hungary) actively trying to stem the flow.
Rather than throwing around words like "hordes" and "flood" and "siege" as sensationalist websites are prone to do, let's look at some hard numbers. The highest estimate I've seen for the number of Syrian refugees in the European Union is about 350,000. That's a lot. However, the EU is a group of 28 countries, most of them wealthy, with a combined population of 508,000,000. That is to say, the Syrian refugees in the EU are equivalent to substantially less than one-thousandth of its total population.
Jordan, the country immediately south of Syria, has a population of about 8,000,000 and a per-capita income less than one-third of the EU average. Jordan has taken in, by latest estimate, about 1,400,000 Syrian refugees, four times as many as the entire EU, and equivalent to almost one-fifth of its own population.
Lebanon, Syria's western neighbor (and long-suffering victim of the Asad regime's meddling over the years) has about 4,500,000 people and a per-capita income less than half the EU average. Lebanon has received an estimated 1,200,000 Syrian refugees, more than three times as many as the entire EU, equivalent to a quarter of its own population -- though in truth Lebanon had little choice in the matter, given that the hard-to-control Lebanon-Syria border runs close to several major Syrian cities.
Turkey, north of Syria, is a rather different case. With 78,000,000 people and a per-capita income slightly higher than Lebanon's, it's also a military colossus by Middle Eastern standards, and unlike Lebanon could easily have sealed off its border with Syria. Yet Turkey has taken in more than 2,100,000 Syrian refugees, six times as many as the EU.
As if these numbers weren't daunting enough, even more people -- something like seven million -- are "internally displaced" within Syria, meaning they've fled where they normally live due to the war but ended up somewhere else within the same country, and are thus technically not classified as "refugees" even though their situation may well be worse, without benefit of whatever assistance a stable government and international organizations can offer in places like Jordan or Turkey.
Which makes the relatively small contingent of refugees in Europe a sideshow to a sideshow. I don't know why Europe is suffering such tremendous chaos and political upheaval dealing with a problem one-fourth as large as what tiny Jordan is handling with far less fuss, but it's difficult to feel very much sympathy.
Remember, too, that when the bathtub is overflowing, it makes little sense to focus only on mopping the bathroom floor -- what you really need to do is turn off the faucet. The "faucet" driving this flow of human misery is the Syrian civil war, especially the expansion and brutality of ISIS. And most of the burden of fighting ISIS and ultimately restoring peace is being borne by Middle Easterners as well -- primarily the Kurds and Iraqis and various forces in Syria, who are bearing the brunt of fighting ISIS on the ground and making most of the sacrifices involved. In this, they're supported primarily by Iran, though the US and some European countries are also providing important air support (as are Jordan, Iran, and other Middle Eastern states). If the Europeans really want to stop the flow of refugees, or even just the relatively small portion thereof which is reaching Europe, they'd be well advised to ramp up their support for the Kurds and other fighters who are trying to crush ISIS. The problem isn't going to stop until that is accomplished.
One of my favorite movies is The Wicker Man (1973), a British production starring Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee. The film has achieved some notoriety and most people have at least a vague idea of it, even if they haven't seen it. In case you don't, a summary:
Sergeant Howie (Woodward), a Scottish police officer who also happens to be a devout Christian, travels to a remote island off the Scottish coast to investigate the apparent disappearance of a young girl. He quickly discovers that the locals have some rather unusual habits. They engage in various ancient pagan rituals, and pagan art and symbols are on display everywhere. Sexuality is spoken of, and practiced, in startlingly frank and open ways (heterosexual only, but this film was made 42 years ago). The repressed and priggish Howie finds all this rather offensive and disturbing, but pursues his investigation. Eventually he meets the community leader, Lord Summerisle (Lee), who explains that his grandfather had revived ancient Celtic paganism among the people in connection with introducing new strains of fruit which made the island prosperous.
Howie suspects that the girl whose disappearance he is investigating is being held somewhere to be used as a human sacrifice. As a major pagan ritual event is under way, he infiltrates the site, only to be unmasked. The pagans had tricked him into coming there so that they could.....
.....and then comes one of the most jarring shock endings in film history, as the charming and hedonistic pagans turn murderous. They force Howie into a huge wicker structure in the form of a man (hence the title) and burn him alive. He, not the missing girl, is their human sacrifice.
Not only is this almost too horrific to watch, it achieves a remarkable flipping in the viewer's perception of the characters. The annoyingly prudish and judgmental Howie instantly becomes a figure of profound sympathy, while the carefree pagans, dancing and singing as their atrocity proceeds, look like insane monsters.
The film interests me for several reasons. Until you reach the ending, it evokes, to some extent, the dream of what the modern world might have become if Christianity had never existed (I doubt the ancient Celtic world was quite this sexually liberated -- casual sex gets a bit problematical without reliable contraception). But the ending too has an important lesson, which is connected with the reason why modern pagans and "neo-pagans" don't commit human sacrifices.
I don't know whether ancient Celtic pagans actually sacrificed people by burning them alive (the Carthaginians did, though under circumstances quite different than those depicted here). Ancient pagan northern Europeans certainly did commit human sacrifice, often by stabbing or strangulation, and plenty of corpses have been found in peat bogs which preserved them down to modern times. The Christian fanatics of the Dark Ages routinely burned people alive, not as sacrifices but as punishment for witchcraft, heresy, and the like. And in modern times ISIS used this method to murder captured Jordanian pilot Mu'âdh al-Kassâsbah, and has performed many other horrifying ritualistic killings.
What did all these people -- pagan, Christian, and Muslim -- have in common? They were true believers. They believed, fervently, in the literal truth of the religions they practiced.
In recent decades there's been an increased interest in paganism, with Druidic rituals being practiced at Stonehenge and a temple to the old Norse gods being built in Iceland, while syncretistic "neo-pagan" religions like Wicca and Thelema claim hundreds of thousands of adherents in many countries. But no one seems to think this is dangerous; nobody who visits to observe the rituals at Stonehenge worries that he's going to be strangled and thrown into a peat bog.
The reason is that these modern pagan systems are more a matter of ritual and feeling a connection with ancient tradition (and having fun) than of actual belief. Do modern enthusiasts of Norse paganism, for example, believe in the literal existence of Thor and Odin the same way ISIS believes in the literal existence of Allah? I find that awfully hard to imagine. And that's why they're not dangerous. You don't commit atrocities for the sake of a god that you know is really just a traditional symbol, a projection of human passions, and not a living entity.
The charm of The Wicker Man's islanders is that for most of the movie they look like the same kind of people. This is a place where something vaguely like Wicca or the Stonehenge revelry has become normative and evolved into a whole culture. It's only when you reach the ending that you realize that's not what it is at all -- these people really believe this stuff. And that's what makes the horror possible.
In this scene earlier in the film, the culture clash comes to the surface as Howie confronts Lord Summerisle, who explains how the island got the way it is. The pagan leader's urbane and civilized manner contrasts with Howie's bigoted fury, but towards the end he shows a hint of fervor that adumbrates something dangerous.
One more video (NSFW): In Howie's most-human moment except for the ending, he struggles to resist an almost-irresistible pagan temptation -- writhing in the torment of fighting against his own human nature which he has been taught is sin.
Individualist, transhumanist, American patriot, socialist, atheist, liberal, optimist, pragmatist, and regular guy -- it has been my great good fortune to live my whole life free of "spiritual" concepts of any kind. I believe that evidence and reason are the keys to understanding reality; that it is technology rather than ideology or politics that has been the great liberator of humanity; and that in the long run human intelligence is the most powerful force in the universe.