Sam Harris’s specious argument that intentions matter when killing civilians

Sam Harris recently got into a public debate with Noam Chomsky about whether US foreign policy or Muslim terrorists are morally worse. Harris argues that the US killing of civilians is fundamentally different from the civilian deaths caused by Muslim terrorists, because the US doesn’t intend to kill civilians, whereas the goal of Muslim terrorists is to kill civilians.

Harris argues in his book The End of Faith (2004):

Nothing in Chomsky’s account acknowledges the difference between intending to kill a child, because of the effect you hope to produce on its parents (we call this “terrorism”), and inadvertently killing a child in an attempt to capture or kill an avowed child murderer (we call this “collateral damage”). In both cases a child has died, and in both cases it is a tragedy. But the ethical status of the perpetrators, be they individuals or states, could hardly be more distinct.

Chomsky might object that to knowingly place the life of a child in jeopardy is unacceptable in any case, but clearly this is not a principle we can follow. The makers of roller coasters know, for instance, that despite rigorous safety precautions, sometime, somewhere, a child will be killed by one of their contraptions. Makers of automobiles know this as well. So do makers of hockey sticks, baseball bats, plastic bags, swimming pools, chain-link fences, or nearly anything else that could conceivably contribute to the death of a child. There is a reason we do not refer to the inevitable deaths of children on our ski slopes as “skiing atrocities.” But you would not know this from reading Chomsky. For him, intentions do not seem to matter. Body count is all.

We are now living in a world that can no longer tolerate well-armed, malevolent regimes. Without perfect weapons, collateral damage—the maiming and killing of innocent people—is unavoidable. Similar suffering will be imposed on still more innocent people because of our lack of perfect automobiles, airplanes, antibiotics, surgical procedures, and window glass. If we want to draw conclusions about ethics—as well as make predictions about what a given person or society will do in the future—we cannot ignore human intentions. Where ethics are concerned, intentions are everything.47

Harris argues that the intent of Bill Clinton when bombing the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998 was radically different from the intent of the 9-11 terrorists when flying planes into the Twin Towers. Chomsky responds to this argument by saying that the US is no different from other imperial regimes which justified their immoral acts based upon the argument that they had good intentions, including the Japanese invading China and the Germans invading Poland and Sudetenland:

Clinton bombed al-Shifa in reaction to the Embassy bombings, having discovered no credible evidence in the brief interim of course, and knowing full well that there would be enormous casualties.  Apologists may appeal to undetectable humanitarian intentions, but the fact is that the bombing was taken in exactly the way I described in the earlier publication which dealt the question of intentions in this case, the question that you claimed falsely that I ignored: to repeat, it just didn’t matter if lots of people are killed in a poor African country, just as we don’t care if we kill ants when we walk down the street.  On moral grounds, that is arguably even worse than murder, which at least recognizes that the victim is human.  That is exactly the situation.  And we are left with your unwillingness to address the very clear question that opened the passage you cite is, instead offering evasions that are exactly as I described.  And your unwillingness to address the crucial ethical question about intentions.

To adopt your terms, the matter of “altruism (however inept), negligence, and malevolence is absolutely clear” in the case of the al-Shifa bombing.  There wasn’t even a hint of altruism, inept or not, so we can dismiss that.  There was clear negligence – the fate of probably tens of thousands of African victims did not matter.  As to whether there is malevolence, that depends on the ethical question I raised, which you seem not to want to consider: to repeat, how do we rank murder (which treats the victim as a human) with quite consciously killing a great number of people, but not caring, because we treat them as we do ants when we walk down the street: the al-Shifa case?

And a further question.  How do we regard citizens of the country that carried out this atrocity who seek to provide some justification in terms of clearly non-existent altruistic intentions.

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.  I described it as an atrocity, as it clearly is, and merely stated the unquestionable facts.  There is no “moral equivalence,” the term that has been regularly used, since Jeane Kirkpatrick, to try to undercut critical analysis of the state one defends.

As for intentions, there is nothing at all to say in general.  There is a lot to say about specific cases, like the al-Shifa bombing, or Japanese fascists in China (who you should absolve, on your grounds, since there’s every reason to suppose that their intention to bring an “earthly paradise” was quite real), and other cases I’ve discussed, including Hitler and high Stalinist officials.  So your puzzlement about my attitude towards intentions generally is quite understandable.  There can be no general answer.  Accordingly, you give none.  Nor do I.

I’m glad that you are interested in looking at the other cases I’ve discussed for 50 years, addressing exactly the question you claim I ignored.  These cases shed great light on the ethical question of how to evaluate “benign intentions”.  As I’ve discussed for many years, in fact decades, benign intentions are virtually always professed, even by the worst monsters, and hence carry no information, even in the technical sense of that term.  That’s quite independent of their “sincerity,” however we determine that (pretty easy in the Japanese case, and the question doesn’t even arise in the al-Shifa case).

Harris reduces Chomsky’s argument down to the idea that intentions don’t matter, whereas body count is the only thing that counts. However, that is an over-simplification of Chomsky’s position. Chomsky is not saying that “intentions do not matter,” but rather he writes whole books showing that US actions do not correspond to its publicly stated intentions, so we need to examine actions in order to understand the real intentions.

However, let’s take Harris’s argument at face value that intentions matter when examining the morality of actions. I believe that US intentions in invading Iraq were actually worse than the intentions of the 9-11 terrorists. George W. Bush and his administration presented false pretexts (i.e., lied) about why the US illegally invaded Iraq. When we examine the reasons why they decided to invade Iraq (oil profits and geopolitical control over a strategic area of the world), they are far worse than the reasons why Osama bin Laden and his cohorts flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Bin Laden publicly stated right before the 9-11 attacks that he would keep attacking the US as long as the US:

  1. Kept its troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, which the US had done since the Gulf War. (Remember that Mecca and Medina is sacred land for Muslims.)
  2. Continued the blockade of Iraq, which was causing malnutrition and a medical crisis in the country. The UN estimated that blockade caused half a million Iraqi children to die.
  3. Continued supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestine, so the Palestinian people do not have a state.

Although US mainstream media bowed to the wishes of the Bush administration and did not publish them, these were the publicly stated reasons for the 9-11 attacks.

If the mid-term goal was to get the US out of the MiddleEast and create a Palestinian state, those intentions were far more noble than the intentions of Bush and the neocons around him, which were fundamentally greedy and self-interested. It can be argued that the US sent troops to liberate the Iraqi people and set up a democracy. However, I would argue that what we actually tried to create was a puppet state and the democracy which we were trying to create was a sham democracy that would have the formal trapping of a democracy, but would respond to our interests, which were often opposed to the needs and wishes of the Iraqi people. The plans we implemented in terms of the privatization of the Iraqi state industries and oil were opposed by the vast majority of the Iraqi people, which shows that the US has little interest in creating real democracy in Iraq.

Many would argue that bin Laden’s stated reasons for the 9-11 attacks were false pretexts. I don’t believe that they were false, but I do think that they were only the short-term goals of the 9-11 terrorists. They also wanted to provoke the US to attack Muslim countries, which would lead the Muslim world to rise up and topple their corrupt leaders and create a religious caliphate. If the goal was to topple the Saud royal family and Mubarak in Egypt, then again that goal was more noble than the US intentions, in my opinion.

It the ultimate goal was set up a religious caliphate under sharia law which crushes civil and religious freedoms, then we can argue about who was more immoral. The Neocons in the Bush administration drew up plans to invade and overthrow the governments of 7 Muslim countries, so the US would reign supreme as a global superpower that would impose neoliberal economics on countries around the world. Both visions were fundamentally against human freedom and anti-democratic, but I would argue that the Neocons were morally worse, because they wanted to rule over other countries and control other peoples, whereas the 9-11 terrorists wanted to impose a new rule over their own societies.

Both the 9-11 terrorists and the Neocons in their own minds thought they were helping people, but both were willing to use deeply immoral means of achieving their goals. Both were willing to kill innocent civilians as a means to achieve their goals. The 9-11 terrorists killed roughly 3000 civilians, whereas the invasion of Iraq has killed roughly a million Iraqis and caused 4.5 million refugees. Maybe the Neocons in the Bush administration didn’t know that so many Iraqis would be killed with they started the occupation of Iraq, but they certainly knew that far more than 3000 civilians would die.

We can argue that the Neocons do not represent the US in general, but the US has continued to make war in the MiddleEast for the last 16 years. Today, the US is bombing in 7 countries in the MiddleEast and has special forces operating in 133 counties. It has 700 – 800 foreign military bases in 70 countries. Both Democrats and Republicans share the Neocon goal of controlling other peoples around the world and imposing US power globally.

I would argue that the goal of being a global superpower which uses military power to control other countries is fundamentally immoral, especially when it is used for the purpose of overthrowing the foreign governments of Iraq, Libya and Syria and to bomb civilians in Palestine, Yemen and Somalia. Sam Harris seems to believe that the US is undertaking these military adventures around the world for fundamentally moral reasons. I would argue that Harris is wrong, if you look at actions of US foreign policy in the MiddleEast since the end of the WWII, rather than just paying attention to our rhetoric.

In March 1949, the US supported a coup d’état that overthrew the democratically elected government of Syria, partly because the US feared that the Syrian government was in danger of collapse which would empower the Communists, Muslim Brotherhood and the Ba’athists. However, the Syrian parliament had held up approval of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline between the Persian Gulf and southern Lebanon, which was being constructed by Bechtel for a joint venture owned by Standard Oil of New Jersey (today ExxonMobil), Standard Oil of California (today Chevron), Texaco and Socony-Vacuum Oil Company. In 1953, the US overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran headed by Mohammad Mosaddegh, after the Iranian parliament voted to nationalize the assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP).

The US is alleged to have supported General Zia-ul-Haq when he overthrew the Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977, because Bhutto wanted Pakistan to build a nuclear bomb. Regardless of whether the US was involved in the actual coup or not, the US helped prop up General Zia’s government with military aid. Likewise, the US did the same by providing little support for the democratic government led Benazir Bhutto, but poured aid into the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf, which overthrew Bhutto. In December 2007 when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, the US was promoting a plan to make Bhutto the putative head of state, while Musharraf controlled the military, which would have kept most of the real power in his hands.

After the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) of Algeria won local elections by large margins in June 1990 and legislative elections in December 1991 and appeared poised to win control of the national government in the next election, the US supported a military coup in January 1992. After Hamas won 74 out of 132 sets on the Palestinian Legislative Council in January 2006, the US helped Israel blockade the Gaza Strip to punish the Palestinians for voting the wrong way in the elections.

The US backed the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak to the end when Democracy Spring protesters filled Cairo’s streets. After Mohamed Morsi of the Islamic Brotherhood was elected in June 2012, the US continued to bankroll the Egyptian military which then overthrew Morsi. Although there is no evidence that the US participated in the overthrow of Morsi, looking at the statements of US diplomats and the flow of US aid into the Egyptian military, it is clear that the US preferred a military dictatorship over democracy in Egypt. This same pattern is evident in the way that the US supported the King of Bahrain while protesters took to the streets demanding democracy and more rights for Shiites. The US government backed dictatorship in Bahrain and even helped train the forces which brutally suppressing the Democracy Spring protesters, because the King of Bahrain allows the US Navy to base its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.

The US putatively supports democracy in the MiddleEast by pressuring dictatorships to undertake limited reforms and carry out sham elections which are carefully controlled to not challenge the ruling power which is allied with the US. While these reforms may help open up some spaces for greater civil and gender rights, they may also serve as pressure values that divert movements that could potentially overthrow dictatorships and lead to democracy. Looking at how the US has supported the democratic government of Tunisia since the overthrow of Ben Ali in December 2010, there is some truth to the US rhetoric about spreading freedom and democracy. The US supported Ben Ali, but has increased aid and economic ties with Tunisia since it became a democracy, however Tunisia has also been a willing ally in the US’s so-called “war on terror”. Basically, the US will support democracy in the MiddleEast as long as democracy doesn’t challenge any of its fundamental interests in the region. 

Probably the best example of how the US’s professed ideals don’t match its actions is the contrast between its stance toward Saudi Arabia and Iran. Since WWII, the US has supported and supplied arms to the Saudi royal family despite the fact that it is one of the most repressive regimes in the world. The Saudi elections in 2005, 2011 and 2015 for municipal councils are widely acknowledged to be shams and women in Saudi Arabia have fewer rights than almost anywhere else in the world. At the same time that the US stoutly supports Saudi Arabia and is even bombing Yemen at the behest of the Saudi government, it has opposed Iran since its 1979 revolution. Not only did the US help arm and fund the Iraqi war against Iran, which killed roughly a million people in the 1980s, the US also led the push in the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran between December 2006 and January 2016 for its uranium enrichment activities. Iran has never developed a nuclear bomb, unlike Pakistan and India, yet it endured far harsher punishment. Although elections in Iran are constrained by the mullahs in the Guardian Council who approve all candidates, the elections are real contests between the reformers and the hard-liners. Ironically, Iran has a freer election system than any other country in the MiddleEast, except for Israel and Turkey, which both brutally suppress the rights of their minorities.

Judging from our actions, the goal of US policy in the MiddleEast does not appear to create democracy and spread freedom, but rather control the supply of hydrocarbons and obtain geopolitical control over a strategically important region of the world. Those goals are fundamentally immoral, which undermines Harris’s whole argument about the “good intentions” on the part of the US.

By any objective measure, US foreign policy has killed more civilians in the MiddleEast than all the actions of Muslim terrorists combined over the last 15 years. While the beheadings of foreign journalists by ISIS may make headlines around the world, the 23,000 bombs that the US dropped on the MiddleEast in 2015 killed far more civilians. Furthermore, Harris’s contention that civilian deaths caused by the US are the result of collateral damage rather than intension becomes highly questionable when examining the evidence. Only 35 out of the 219 people who were killed by US special operation airstrikes in northeastern Afghanistan between January 2012 and February 2013 were targets. The proportion of civilian deaths may be higher than 90% in Yemen and Somalia where the US has far more limited intelligence. We have no idea how many civilians have been killed because the US military counts everyone who it kills in a strike zone to be a combatant who is male and of military age, unless it has specific evidence otherwise. These practices suggest that the US military shows no regard for civilian lives and is willing to kill civilians simply because they happen to be in the vicinity of suspected terrorists, so it is hard to argue that it is any morally better than ISIS.

The final argument of Harris is that Muslim culture is more backward and immoral that Western culture. He writes in the End of Faith:

Any systematic approach to ethics, or to understanding the necessary underpinnings of a civil society, will find many Muslims standing eye deep in the red barbarity of the fourteenth century. There are undoubtedly historical and cultural reasons for this, and enough blame to go around, but we should not ignore the fact that we must now confront whole societies whose moral and political development—in their treatment of women and children, in their prosecution of war, in their approach to criminal justice, and in their very intuitions about what constitutes cruelty—lags behind our own. This may seem like an unscientific and potentially racist thing to say, but it is neither. It is not in the least racist, since it is not at all likely that there are biological reasons for the disparities here, and it is unscientific only because science has not yet addressed the moral sphere in a systematic way. Come back in a hundred years, and if we haven’t returned to living in caves and killing one another with clubs, we will have some scientifically astute things to say about ethics. Any honest witness to current events will realize that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilized democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments. Chomsky seems to think that the disparity either does not exist or runs the other way

Harris uses polling among Muslim countries to show that Muslim culture is inferior to Western culture. Looking at the poll results, Harris does have some basis for his arguments, especially in terms of Muslim attitudes toward freedom of religion and freedom of thought, but on certain moral questions Muslim culture may actually be ahead of Western culture. Polling around the world shows that Muslims are more likely to believe that the killing of civilians is never morally justified than Christians, Jews and atheists in Western countries.

Percentage of people who said it is sometimes justifiable to target and kill civilians:

Mormon-Americans 64%
Christian-Americans 58%
Jewish-Americans 52%
Israeli Jews 52%
Palestinians* 51%
No religion/Atheists/Agnostics (U.S.A.) 43%
Nigerians* 43%
Lebanese* 38%
Spanish Muslims 31%
Muslim-Americans 21%
German Muslims 17%
French Muslims 16%
British Muslims 16%
Egyptians* 15%
Indonesians* 13%
Jordanians* 12%
Pakistanis* 5%
Turks* 4%

*refers to Muslims only

Take the above table with a grain of salt, since it is combining the results of several different polls with different methodologies, but it clearly shows that Christians and Jews are not morally superior to Muslims on this particular question.

We, however, should not be engaging in pointless arguments about the moral superiority of different cultures, because it only leads us to more tribalism and counterproductive efforts to justify our moral failings by pointing to the moral failings of others. The fact of the matter is that the terrorism of Muslim fundamentalists is linked to the terrorism of Western nations. In many ways the actions of ISIS, Al Quaeda, Al Nusra Front, Algerian rebels in the 1960s and Palestinian suicide bombers are responses to the terrorist policies of the US, Israel and France. When one side behaves immorally, the other side responds by also behaving immorally. To break this vicious cycle of violence and dehumanization, we must strive to resolve conflict through negotiations and respect for human rights. Claiming to spread democracy and freedom while pursuing policies to control the supply of hydrocarbons, implement neoliberal economics, and seeking geostrategic control over the region will never get us out of this morass.

Another major problem with New Atheists like Sam Harris is his decontextualized and ahistorical understanding of Muslim culture and his literalist reading of its sacred texts. He fails to examine the history of how terrorism has developed in the MiddleEast and how it was often employed as a response of people with little power fighting powerful forces. To attribute most of the development of terrorism to religion is frankly poor scholarship. New Atheists like Harris assign an overwhelming agency to the sacred texts of religions, which doesn’t correspond to how religion is actually practiced. Despite what religious people may claim, very few religious people practice their faith with a literalist reading of the sacred texts. All religious people pick and choose what parts of the texts to emphasize and deemphasize according to their current cultural context.

The current cultural norms of their societies generally have a much greater influence of their moral decisions than their sacred texts. Abortion and homosexuality are rarely discussed in the bible compared to other moral questions, yet fundamentalist Christians in the US have taken up these issues as central planks of their religion. Yet, New Atheists like Harris seem to take sacred texts as having some determinate power over the actions of religious people. Frankly, sacred texts offer many models to follow and can be interpreted in many different ways. The way that ISIS has chosen to interpret the Koran has less to do with the Koran itself and more to do with particular historical context where ISIS is situated.

To argue that one religion is more prone to terrorism against civilians than another is to fail to understand how context and history shapes people’s actions. After the year 70, Judaism became a stateless religion and there was little practice of violence by Jews. When Zionist Jews began trying to create a Jewish state, they returned to violence after a 2000 year hiatus. They could find justification for that violence in their sacred texts, just like they had found justification for not being violent for 2 millenia in those same texts. The fact that the same percentage of Israeli Jews and Palestinians believe that it is sometimes justifiable to target and kill civilians suggests that context is very important in determining when people turn to violence. It is striking that Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims would come to the same opinion, since most Israeli Jews are Ashkenazim from Northern and Eastern Europe, so most Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims come from different cultures and genetic backgrounds.

While over half of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims in Palestine believe that killing civilians is sometimes morally justified, only 4% of Muslims in Turkey believe the same. This same diversity of opinion on moral questions is evident throughout the Muslim world. In a global survey of Muslims by the Pew Research Center, 99% in Afghanistan and 86% in Niger say that sharia law should be official law, whereas only 8% in Azerbaijan and 12% in Albania believe the same.

This is not to argue that religion has no influence over when and how people turn to violence. Religion provides models of behavior and ways of thinking, so it is not surprising that Buddhists might have turned to self-immolation to protest the Vietnam War, because that kind of protest fits with the Buddhist model of introspection and non-violence toward others. Nonetheless, the fact that both Muslim Hezbollah and the secular Marxist Tamil Tigers adopted the new tactic of suicide terrorism in the 1980s needs to be understood by looking at their similar contexts of the powerless fighting the powerful. To understand why so many Muslims have turned to terrorism can only be understood by examining the context of Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis, Al Quaeda, Al Nusra, ISIS, Boko Haram, Abu Sayyaf and Darul Islam, rather than making sweeping generalizations about all 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Similarly, to understand why American Christians have become violent supporters of wars which kill civilians in massive numbers cannot be understood outside of the context of  US imperialism and militarism, which allows the gospels which are fundamentally pacifist in nature to be interpreted as a justification for war and state-sponsored terrorism. 

Whatever Sam Harris’s purpose for debating Noam Chomsky, he is not searching for realistic ways to resolve the conflicts in the MiddleEast. His solution appears to be preach to Muslims that they should abandon their belief in God and convince them all to become Western secularists. This goal is unlikely to work, considering that 96% of Muslims say that they believe in God. To be fair to Harris, he is not a bigot. He advocates the same embrace of secular atheism for Western Christians and Jews as he advocates for Muslims in the MiddleEast and he devotes far more of this criticism toward Western Christians than Muslims in his book, End of Faith.

As Chomsky argues, our first moral responsibility is to focus our attention on our own society and the actions of our own governments who receive our taxes and supposedly represent us, because we have far most power to change their immoral actions. We have little prospect of changing the behavior of ISIS or Al Qaeda terrorists without first altering the foreign policy of Western nations, which helped give rise to ISIS and Al Qaeda. I don’t think Harris is a hypocrite in this regard, since most of his focus has been on critiquing Christianity as practiced in the US, yet there is also an underlying assumption of cultural superiority and cultural imperialism in his writing. His arguments can be employed as a justification for the terrorism of the US state in extra-judicial drone killings, regime change and military invasion of sovereign countries.

If we are going to make universalist appeals to moral tenets, those appeals must be based on a respect for foreign peoples, their religion, and their right to determine their own destinies. They must also be predicated upon a willingness to engage in self-criticism of our own culture and acknowledge how we are contributing to the problem, rather than engaging in reflexive tribalism to justify our own morally-dubious actions.

1 thought on “Sam Harris’s specious argument that intentions matter when killing civilians

  1. Hussain Tirmizi

    You totally nailed it, right here!! Such an informative, insightful and inspiring piece!! Really helps understand the situation in the Islamic world a lot better and far more comprehensively, instead of looking at things in black and white, like that self-righteous, war-apologist, hypocrite Sam harris! Great job!



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