Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Dark Consequences of Philosophy X

President Obama declares that we'll find out who was responsible for the bombings in Boston, learn why they did it, and hold them accountable.  I certainly hope so.  Anyone responsible deserves the worst.  I suspect that they will indeed be caught and punished, too.  But I'm less certain about the "learn why they did it" part.

In the aftermath of the Newtown massacres, news media types, pundits, and politicians kept talking about "trying to understand why this happened, what motivated the killer."  It was a commonly repeated theme.  But unless one is a psychologist or psychiatrist, I think there's very little point in "trying to understand" someone like this.  I certainly didn't waste time "trying to make sense" out of his actions, because I doubt it is really possible.  And I'm skeptical that when we do manage to get an explanation for homicidal behavior of this nature, that it is really understanding and not simply a rationalization that we find satisfying.

The cruel, murderous attack in Boston was probably terrorism, with some political or religious theme to it.  So here's what is more likely to happen, once the perpetrator(s) is/are identified.  The perpetrators will have done the vicious deeds on behalf of some as-yet-unidentified set of ideas, call it Philosophy X.  Once we know what Philosophy X is, pundits will race to explain how the ideas of Philosophy X lead to this sort of thing, that acts like the bombing are implied by Philosophy X itself.  Counter-pundits will then object that no, instead this is a perversion of Philosophy X.  And the discussion will go on and on.  But the discussion will be nonsense.

Remember Anders Brevik, the Norwegian who murdered 69 people?  Ostensibly he did it because of his opposition to Islam and to multiculturalism.  He said so, rather clearly.  But what's the real link between his actions and his professed ideas?  He as easily could have claimed to have been acting in defense of Islam, or Marxism, or in opposition to the white race, and his behavior would have made as much sense.  And that will be the case when the criminals of Boston are uncovered.  Regardless of what Philosophy X proves to be, there will be nothing in it that suggests one should set off explosives in the midst of crowds watching the Boston Marathon to kill and maim random onlookers.  Unless...

One thing I was wondering.  What if it happens that this wasn't an act of terrorism.  What if someone just did it for the sake of the act itself, not for any political purpose.  What if someone did it just for, say, fun?  One might wonder how committing such a terrible crime could be fun.  Well, suppose a person has no empathy -- an assumption which does not strain credulity at all, but seems a necessary precondition for someone to engage in such a bombing.  Given this, think what a challenge pulling off this crime poses: building workable bombs, then placing them in public locations while in full view of thousands of people, including numerous police, and finally detonating them successfully.  Those aspects could be quite exciting.  A person with any kind of moral sense would be appalled, but someone with none might find this quite a thrill.  Such a person might have, in addition, some sort of political or religious feelings that provide a rationale for their actions, but I suspect that this is often closer to window dressing than real motive.  I suspect -- and it is just my own speculation -- that Brevik, the 9-11 hijackers, and many other terrorists -- have two main driving forces behind their actions: they don't like people, and they are doing something exciting.  The philosophy is just an excuse.

Adam Smith observed that a man with no empathy at all, and no sense of justice, was a fearful monster who should be hunted out of society like a dangerous beast.  So if there really is a "Philosophy X," it is anything that destroys a person's empathy and moral sense, that leads one to see other human beings as mere objects, or as nothing but means to one's own ends.  This seems to be an important component of most political philosophies these days, so in that sense these killers are motivated by ideas.  But it's not this particular aspect of their ideas that the pundits will focus on; this will strike too close to home.  Instead the pundits will focus on the Islam, or the right-wing-extremism, or the Juche, or whatever else this proves to be, and miss the fundamental problem.

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Mediaite has collected the "Ten Worst Media Reactions" to the Boston bombing.  Chris Matthews says it was Republicans, Michael Moore says it was the Tea Party, Alex Jones says it was the government, etc. etc.  Every single example is simply someone blaming the people they hate the most, with no evidence at all.

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