Well, my 9/11 commentary sure drew a lot of negativity from listeners, but I guess that’s to be expected when you have an internet full of people who each want to blame their own personal boogeyman for these horrendous attacks. And it seems that if you proffer any different motivation for the attacks, no matter how reasoned, no matter how much the facts agree with it, no matter how many intelligence experts agree with the conclusion, then you’re a horrible person who loves the terrorists and wants to make excuses for them.
These people seem to fit into one of three categories. The first is the jingoistic “America First!” crowd. To these people, America is absolutely perfect and wonderful because we have freedom and the terrorists hate that, and that’s why they attack us, and no other reason. Point out that there are other countries that are freer than America in many respects, such as Switzerland and New Zealand, and they aren’t anywhere close to being the terrorist target that we are, and you’ll receive loud screeds about how you hate America.
The second category is the Alex Jones conspiritard “truther.” I think the less said about them the better.
The third is the one I want to talk about, because that’s where I’ve gotten most of my criticism. As an atheist skeptic, it stands to reason that I’ve attracted a lot of atheist and skeptical listeners and subscribers, and many of them took great issue with what I was saying. How could I not be shouting from the mountaintops that this was due to religion, how religion poisons the minds of otherwise-good people, and makes them commit these kinds of atrocities? It just had to be Muslim extremists who believed in 72 virgins because there’s just no other way you can get people to kill themselves and others by flying planes into buildings.
Here’s a sampling of some of the comments: “Terrorist want to rule the world so the resistance to this regime and its religion is inevitable.” “We need a world free of religions once and for all.” “Religious prophecy has predicted the end of the world, and work very hard to make sure that prophecy comes true.” “Such reactions are not only fueled by religious dogma, they are a direct result of it.” “Even if we stopped meddling there’s not much can be done against a religion that hates us.” “Sorry, it is Islamic ideology, first and foremost, that drives people like Bin Laden to commit such pernicious suicide attacks.”
Well, there’s a very good reason why I didn’t say that, and that is, quite simply, it just isn’t true. Sure, the terrorists were Muslims, even extremist Muslims, but was that really their primary motivation? There is a big discrepancy here: Atheists love pointing out that, when religious people do charitable work, they’re doing it because humans are, by their nature, charitable people, and they’ve just convinced themselves that it goes along with their religion. Yet in this case, the mere possibility that the same effect was going on—that they had other motivations for the attacks and made that fit their religion—just doesn’t get considered.
But think about it: How would we react if another country—say, China—came to the US to do the same thing? And let’s say that they came here not only for altruistic reasons, but for reasons that most of us might even agree with. Let’s say they use their military to oust Texas governor Rick Perry for executing innocent people, putting in a governor of their choosing who will eliminate the death penalty. Let’s say they go into states such as Kansas and forcibly oust legislators trying to get creationism taught in the schools. Let’s say they go around the country and to Washington ousting corrupt politicians left and right. And all the while, they’re fighting our military, but in the process killing not only our soldiers, but thousands of innocent, civilian, noncombatant Americans as well—and wives lose their husbands, husbands lose their wives, children lose their parents, parents lose their children, people get severely injured and even dismembered, and lose their homes and everything they own, on and on all over the country. Just what do you think would happen to the mentality of Americans—regardless of religion—if someone were to do to us exactly what the American government has done to so many people the world over? Our jingoistic overreaction to 9/11 is just a microcosm of what it would be like.
They are correct about one thing: there needs to be something to turn someone from a freedom fighter into a terrorist. But while religion can be used for this purpose, it is by no means the only thing that can be used—any form of dogma will work.
Most people know about the Japanese Kamikaze pilots in World War II. This didn’t have anything to do with religion—there’s nothing in Buddhism or Shintoism about killing yourself to destroy other people. It began as a last-ditch effort: pilots attacking Pearl Harbor whose planes were too badly damaged to return home decided to take some of the enemy with them. This was seen by their fellow Japanese as an act of selfless bravery, which inspired others and even led to official Kamikaze missions, where planes were packed with explosives and, in cases where the target was known, weren’t even given enough fuel to return home. The first of these was an attack in the Leyte Gulf in October of 1944. Before leaving, the Kamikaze pilots were given ceremonies, but they were NOT religious in nature, but jingoistic. They were given Japanese flags and recited poems about Japan, and other rituals that had more to do with the traditions of the Samurai—a military nobility—than anything religious.
What’s less well-known is that Germany had their own suicide squad: the Leonidas Squadron. Dozens of pilots crashed explosive-laden planes into Soviet bridges. This had nothing to do with Catholicism (the official religion of the Nazis) but everything to do with jingoistic adherence to National Socialism and love for the Führer. The only reason the attacks didn’t continue—and therefore didn’t achieve the same notoriety that the Kamikazes did—was because commander Werner Baumbach convinced his superiors that it was a waste of resources and not very effectual, and that the Mistel bomb was much more efficient.
There are many other examples throughout history. Dutch suicide bombers were used against the Chinese in their battle to take over Taiwan. Sailors of the Ottoman would set their own ships on fire and crash them into enemy ships. A nihilist suicide bomber killed Tsar Alexander II. Rudolph von Gersdorff tried to assassinate Hitler by suicide bomb. And, of course, there are the passengers who fought to take down United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11, killing themselves in the process but saving the intended victims. There are so many examples of suicide fighters motivated by things other than religion—nationalistic pride, defense of others, or even desperation—that it just cannot be said that the 9/11 attacks were motivated by religion alone, or would not have happened had it not been for religion.
The primary motivation is so clear, not only because it’s the conclusion of the intelligence experts who have directly examined the evidence, but also because it’s what these terrorists said their motivations were! Osama bin Laden made his reasons clear in several videotaped comments. For example:
Contrary to what Bush says and claims—that we hate freedom—let him tell us then, “Why did we not attack Sweden?” It is known that those who hate freedom don’t have souls with integrity…We fought with you because we are free, and we don’t put up with transgressions. We want to reclaim our nation. As you spoil our security, we will do so to you.
He mentioned America giving Israel assistance in invading Lebanon, saying:
As I was looking at those towers that were destroyed in Lebanon, it occurred to me that we have to punish the transgressor with the same—and that we had to destroy the towers in America so that they taste what we tasted, and they stop killing our women and children.
Even Arabs who aren’t terrorists say the same thing. As Reem Al-Faisal wrote in Arab News:
The truth is that at present the Muslims hate America and now, they hate not only its policymakers but most of the American people since they have proven recently without a shadow of doubt that they agree with their elite by voting back into office, by a comfortable majority, the Bush administration in spite of its obvious record of lies and abuse of power. The Americans can never claim from now on that they didn’t know that there where no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They cant claim that they didn’t know torture wasn’t widespread in American prisons, from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, and the thousands of other secret detention centers. They surely can’t claim not to know of this entire episode in which thousands have lost their lives and much more have seen their homes and lands destroyed as a result of the American military and its leaders who dont hesitate in using the massive destructive power of the US on defenseless civilians.
As for the claim made by some that I’m saying this makes these attacks justified, how can that possibly be so? I just quoted bin Laden saying that, in essence, the terrorists attack us to teach us a lesson and make us not attack them. Last week I said that Reagan’s attack on Libya was motivated for the same reason: to teach them a lesson, and get them to stop messing with us. That in turn was because Libyan forces had bombed a nightclub in Berlin, which was done to teach the US and the UK a lesson about aiding anti-Libyan forces in Germany. I’m saying that none of these is justified, and, in fact, they are both fundamentally the same thing. We try and teach them a lesson by attacking them; that makes them try and teach us a lesson by attacking us; we then have to teach them another lesson by attacking them again, and on and on and on it goes, and the lesson never gets learned. It has to stop.
As long as we continue to ignore the foreign policy that directly results in this blowback, as long as we continue to try and shift the blame on to other things just because they conform with our own biases and prejudices, we will always be vulnerable to these kinds of attacks—regardless of the religious beliefs of those we have inspired to do so.
This commentary originally appeared on the Bogosity podcast.