Thursday, February 23, 2012

Regarding the Burning of Books and the Ending of Lives

The burning of books is a touchy subject, and I find myself somewhat torn emotionally and intellectually, though not in this case. First a breakdown of this case, then an examination of why so many people are so wrong. Then we'll talk about the problem of ideals in a world that is not ideal.

The basics are, UN troops burned a number of qurans, the taliban then urged muslims to attack and kill NATO troops. The commanding officer then apologized for the burning of books and said it was a mistake. Extremists then rejected the apology, saying " reality they let their inhuman soldiers insult our holy book."  They then suggested Afghans continue such acts "until the doers of such inhumane actions are prosecuted and punished."

Let's look at the first act, the book-burning. This is a touchy subject, and I have found myself on both sides of this in my lifetime. I was raised to treasure the marketplace of ideas, and taught that good ideas will thrive but that everyone should have their chance to share ideas. I was taught that in general, books are the physical embodiment of a shared idea, and they should be cared for- the Library of Alexandria was one of the greatest losses the world has known. As I've gotten older, though, I know that it's more complicated that - the idea must be able to stand on its own, regardless of who holds it or how dearly. It is an intellectual imperative that no idea be beyond question, and it is a humanistic and legal imperative that one person's right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ends when it encroaches on another's comparable rights. The reality is that there is a group that will honest-to-goodness kill you if you tell them they are wrong and burn their book. Let that one sink in. These people are just plain wrong. I really love Michael Shermer's book The Science of Good and Evil. If you burn it, it will upset me but I will move on, because the ideas held within stand on their own; they don't rely on zealous defense for their propagation.

The next step of the fiasco - after people *killed other people* for burning a book,  NATO General John Allen had the nerve to apologize for the act that prompted terrorism. If cowing and apologizing to extremists is your idea of a good move on the part of an international security force, let me request that you never put anyone at NATO in charge of security at any of my events. Ever. Then the reply from the extremists was to reject the first apology and encourage further murder, so clearly the only option is... to have the President of the US apologize also? They really have won this round, because we have implicitly encouraged their violent tactics and apologized for someone suggesting their idea is not precious and wonderful. Shame on you, General John Allen, and shame on you, President Obama, for being accessory to reinforcing the beliefs of extremists. Someone needs to refresh these men on the core concept of carrot-and-stick tactics.

Granted--- it was a very stupid move in such a volatile real-life situation for people representing an international peacekeeping force to burn a book held so dearly by so many dangerous wingnuts. They are right, idealogically, but sometimes you can be right and still make very bad decisions. The other great lesson I learned growing up in the real world is the importance of choosing which battles to fight. To the soldiers who gave the orders - the act itself was okay, but it was irresponsible at best doing that in your official capacity.

That, thinkers, is what it comes down to. It's wonderful to hope for the best right now, it's noble to work to make the world better, but in a world that needs to be better, it's irresponsible to act either with abandon or out of fear, because even the lowly speak for others.

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