The Log in David Brooks’s Eye

David Brooks tells us that Islam harbors evil:

Most people select stories that lead toward cooperation and goodness. But over the past few decades a malevolent narrative has emerged.

That narrative has emerged on the fringes of the Muslim world. It is a narrative that sees human history as a war between Islam on the one side and Christianity and Judaism on the other. This narrative causes its adherents to shrink their circle of concern. They don’t see others as fully human. They come to believe others can be blamelessly murdered and that, in fact, it is admirable to do so.

Elsewhere in the news:

Roeder told reporters that the killing of Dr. George Tiller was necessary because it protected the lives of unborn children.

“Because of the fact preborn children’s lives were in imminent danger this was the action I chose. … I want to make sure that the focus is, of course, obviously on the preborn children and the necessity to defend them,” Roeder said.

“Defending innocent life — that is what prompted me. It is pretty simple,” he said.

During the 30 minute interview, Roeder did not apologize for his role in the death of Dr. Tiller. “No, I don’t have any regrets,” he said.

Let us also mention the many recent examples of media personalities and elected officials encouraging people to commit acts of violence to enforce a right-wing agenda. Recently members of the Westboro Baptist Church cult stood outside Sasha and Malia Obama’s school with signs saying “God is your enemy.”

Humans tend to be frightened of other peoples’ crazy uncles but to ignore our own. I think moderates in the Muslim world are way too tolerant of Muslim extremists, but you can say exactly the same thing about Christian and right-wing extremists in our culture. Flame throwers like Michelle Malkin, Michelle Bachmann, etc. are weaving the narrative that there is virtue in using guns to enforce one’s political agenda when elections go against you. Christian “Dominionists” also push the worldview that human history is a war between Christianity — or their version of it, anyway — and everyone else, with Christianity destined to triumph.

It is only a tiny step between such rhetoric and the belief that others can be blamelessly murdered and that, in fact, it is admirable to do so. Scott Roeder is one who took that step.

Brooks also disagrees with people who, Brooks says, “absolved” Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s responsibilities in the Fort Hood shootings by speculating that he was suffering some sort of emotional or mental breakdown. “The possibility of Islamic extremism was immediately played down. This was an isolated personal breakdown, not an ideological assault, many people emphasized.”

Personally, I don’t think there’s an either-or choice between “personal breakdown” and “Islamic extremism.” Show me an ideological or religious extremist of any sort, and I’ll show you someone who is seriously maladjusted. Which might have come first is something of a chicken-and-egg question, but often someone turns to extremism after suffering some personal breakdown, either acute or chronic.

Erich Fromm wrote that people who find autonomy isolating and bewildering often will submerge themselves in an authoritarian group. And Eric Hoffer wrote,

Only the individual who has come to terms with his self can have a dispassionate attitude toward the world. Once the harmony with the self is upset, he turns into a highly reactive entity. Like an unstable chemical radical he hungers to combine with whatever comes within his reach. He cannot stand apart, whole or self-sufficient, but has to attach himself whole-heartedly to one side or the other.

I have a long disagreement with people who think that looking for a psychological “cause” to a heinous act is somehow making excuses for the perpetrator. I say we’re all crazy, in one way or another, and our first moral responsibility is to deal with our own craziness. People who turn to violence or some kind of self-destruction, like drugs, as a reaction to their psychological flaws (short of psychosis) are not “excused.”

The real cop-out is to explain heinous acts the way Brooks does, by filing them under “evil.” Evil, to Brooks, is an inherent quality that some people have and others don’t, or maybe it’s an infection, like a virus. Brooks writes,

The conversation in the first few days after the massacre was well intentioned, but it suggested a willful flight from reality. It ignored the fact that the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of American foreign policy. It ignored the fact that this narrative can be embraced by a self-radicalizing individual in the U.S. as much as by groups in Tehran, Gaza or Kandahar.

It denied, before the evidence was in, the possibility of evil. It sought to reduce a heinous act to social maladjustment. It wasn’t the reaction of a morally or politically serious nation.

What Brooks doesn’t seem to grasp is that “evil” is not separate from “social maladjustment,” emotional pain, fear, hate, anger, etc. What people call “evil” are acts committed by people who are allowing their maladjustments to jerk them around. Understanding that is not about “absolving” anyone, but about understanding ourselves. To simply blame “evil” is not morally or politically serious, just medieval.

27 thoughts on “The Log in David Brooks’s Eye

  1. Interesting post and I fully agree, particularly the last paragraph on the nature of evil, something that can be analyzed. Too often we revert to cliche and superstition as if people “do bad things because they are evil and they are evil because they do bad things.”

    Psychologists who’ve interviewed some so-called Islamic extremists tell us that they are no more crazy in the psychological sense than anyone serving in the military which is a socially acceptable or politically correct (we call them heroes) institutionalization of murder, always loudly proclaimed as being exclusively defensive.

    But I’ve returned to some books I read long ago by psychiatrist R. D. Laing who has a unique take on what normal and crazy really are. Laing has suggested that normal is just a narrow but socially acceptable range of crazy that tends to make our day-to-day lives easier.

    The brotherhood of man is evoked by particular men according to their circumstances. But it seldom extends to all men. In the name of our freedom and our brotherhood we are prepared to blow up the other half of mankind and to be blown up in our turn.

    Insanity is a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world

    Normality highly values its normal man. It educates children to lose themselves and to become absurd, and thus to be normal. Normal men have killed perhaps 100, 000 of their fellow normal men in the last fifty years.

    I keep going back to the Ft. Hood thing which seems to have given rise to a great deal of dullish and dimly perceptive talk such as that we’re hearing from Brooks.

    The Ft. Hood shooter just chose a different side and his depair over the weight of the “normal” insanity all around him caused him to snap and commit extreme acts. It arose from the same sort of dissonance that might be had by anyone in the military who came to know “one of them” as a human in contrast to one ethnic, homogeneous “them”. He wasn’t necessarily buoyed by military training and discipline or those around him marching in lock step.

    And by the way, David Brooks doesn’t get much. I am still wondering why we can take guns to National Parks but in a military base that is considered too dangerous for those with training. Still, I doubt others with guns would have deterred the Ft. Hood shooter.

  2. Puritanism brought us the Salem Witch Hunts, The Roman Catholic Church brought us the Spanish Inquisition. Dozens of other examples of religious intolerance throughout history from various major religions. Talk about people living in glass houses…

  3. I wonder if David Brooks is capable of grasping that “evil” is precisely the kind of word that allows some people to believe that others can be blamelessly murdered–that it is in fact admirable to do so.

  4. Some people remind me of dolls that say the same thing over and over again when you pull the string on their back. Here’s what you hear when you pull Pat Robertson’s string:

    On his 700 Club TV show yesterday, Pat Robertson claimed that Islam is “not a religion,” but “a violent political system bent on the overthrow of the governments of the world and world domination”:

    Someone pointed out that this sounds closer to the truth:

    The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power

  5. The tree of duality, the belief of separateness, the knowledge of good and evil, this metaphor clearly applies. When one is driven by fear of the other, one is the other. But in full understanding, one ceases to be separate, but exists in harmony with all.

  6. People snap, and if they have access to guns, awful voilence ensues. It’s so common these days, I was surprised that anyone thought it might be related to Islam. I agree that labeling it as “evil” is a cop-out.

    I was at a Science/Sustainability summit the other day, and someone asked why, in ultra-liberal Berkeley and San Francisco, we are so harsh to the homeless, and the speaker likened it to our natural inclination/need to divide the world into us/them.

    Evangelists of any sort make me uncomfortable. Not just religion, but food, exercise, lifestyle, environment, just not a fan of dogma. I hope Obama gets that anti-choice stuff taken out of the health care bill. Goddamn right wingnuts!

  7. Greenwald does a great job exposing Brooks’ hypocrisy:

    The NYT columnist who has supported 4 wars on Muslims in 6 years decries the Islamic disregard for human life.

    David Brooks’ column today perfectly illustrates what lies at the core of our political discourse: namely, self-loving tribalistic blindness laced with a pathological refusal to accept responsibility for one’s actions. Brooks claims there is a unique evil that one finds in the “fringes of the Muslim world”…

    …So here’s a person who is constantly advocating and justifying the killing, bombing, and slaughtering of Muslims, including well over 100,000 innocent civilians. And yet today he writes a column saying: Look over there at those radical Muslims; can you believe how degraded and inhumane they are? In fact, he says, “they” — those Muslims over there — “don’t see others as fully human. They come to believe others can be blamelessly murdered and that, in fact, it is admirable to do so.” That’s from the same person who cheerleads for the endless deaths of Muslims and destruction of the Muslim world while thinking that it makes him strong, resolute, Churchillian, righteous and noble — exactly that which he accuses “fringe Muslims” of doing. And even as he blames the U.S. for “absolving” radical Muslims for the “evil” of their choices, Brooks will never make the connection between what he does and its results because he believes he is free from accountability and that his righteousness justifies the killings he desires — again, exactly that which he says today is the hallmark of Islamic monsters (“They come to believe others can be blamelessly murdered and that, in fact, it is admirable to do so”).

    The tribalistic narcissism and depraved refusal to accept responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions on vivid display here is hardly unique to Brooks. The very same people who express such moral outrage and self-righteous horror over events like the Fort Hood shootings themselves have immense amounts of innocent human blood on their hands, but they simply avert their eyes from what they have caused or believe that they are too inherently Good to be responsible, let alone culpable, for what they unleash.

  8. Re: dominionism
    I’m starting in on Chris Hedges’ AMERICAN FASCISTS: THE CHRISTIAN RIGHT AND THE WAR ON AMERICA. It explains much, and seemed a perfect match to today’s posting at Deus ex Malcontent. Hedges’ introductory definition of “fascism” and the first two chapters are already making me recognize some things more coherently.

  9. There are over 1 billion Muslims on Earth. Is Pat proposing we kill all of them? That would make Hitler and the Nazis look like Mother Teresa!

  10. China (and if not for them the next most powerful country) and oil were strategic reasons for jumping into the Middle East. Religious intolerance is just a sustaining reason in the minds of many. If all the Muslims were in possession of nothing but dirt in Africa they would be readily dismissed as savages of no consequence by those who’ve contracted the Islamo-Fascist heebee-jeebies.

    And Sam ( Is Pat proposing we kill all of them?), where do you get that from a reference to those who see those deemed enemies as a single, unified, homogeneous “them”? Where do I say that’s a good thing? What did you read into that?

  11. Gee, I miss the good old days when Bush was marauding all over the globe and killing evildoers* in our name. I never felt so complete and righteous! Isn’t it wonderful being God’s champion and being able to kill those evil Muslims?… just like little David did for God against that big bad Philistine Goliath.

    * Iraqi evildoing wedding parties especially.

  12. I’ve never personally met an Islamic extremist, but I know a few Christian nut-jobs and I would say they definitely are crazy. Nothing answers the voices in a disturbed mind like the finality and certainty of religion. For the mentally unstable it answers all the questions of what their life means and explains to them how they are superior rather than listening to the inferiority complex voices in their head.. Religion is a lot like alcohol or drugs isn’t it? Some people can live their whole lives casually believing in one religious fairy tale or another, without developing a “god” complex themselves; others (presumably like the shooter and Tim McVeigh) feel compelled to act out violently in order to prove themselves to the god voices in their head. My quess is this Major down at Ft. Hood had some serious mental problems that were supercharged by the super heated religious bullshit that is readily available everywhere you look. Though since he was a Muslim and of Arab dissent he must be an evildoer. I wonder what the reaction would be if a “Christian” soldier went off the deep end and gunned down a bunch of Muslim military recruits in say Iraq or Afghanistan? Would he be an evildoer, a terrorist, or just a seriously damaged person? I think we all know the answer to that.

  13. Pat Pattillo, I think Sam was referring to Pat Robertson, as mentioned in Bob K’s comment. The unRev. Robertson does sound like he’s trying to stir up genocide. (Would he feel differently if they were Muslim fetuses, I wonder?) I don’t think there’s anything in your first comment that can be misinterpreted by people of goodwill (it’s an excellent comment btw).

    As I hear the Right’s post-Ft. Hood shrieking gain volume, my brain locks up and I revert to the images of childhood– particularly I find myself recalling the “Spy Vs. Spy” cartoon from Mad Magazine. I know it was sending up the insanity of the Cold War, but it seems to fit this situation too.

  14. My heart and prayers go out to all the victims, and the victims family and friends.

    From all the news reports it appears this Major is a career military man and that in his current position for less than a year and was not going well. He did not want to be deployed and in fact wanted out of the Army, so he paid back his military student loans and hired an attorney.

    The reason may have been that he was being harassed and called names like “camel jockey ”. I guess all that sensitivity training for those with bigotry tendencies are all for not. (Can training real change the way you were brought up?)

    Another reason is called PTSD by proxy, the stress of treating PTSD in other soldiers make you go a little crazy yourself. Its even more stressful because most of the higher ranks don’t even believe in such thing as PTSD. Their denial prompts them to tell suffering soldiers to “drink it off.” Some civilians in the defense dept feel the same way no doubt IMO, it’s why hardly anything is mentioned of PTSD until one of these violent episodes occurs. These people see PTSD as a cop-out or an excuse. First we need to have an understanding that PTSD actually is real before we can ever hope to help treat it (does anyone believe that being shot at or killing your fellow man is not going to affect you in some way either then or in the future?). I guess with the high soldier suicide rate before and after deployment kinda takes care of the complaints from coming in (so those who said he should have just killed himself, well that’s already happening ). What real pissed me off when I heard that the military was trying to say that some soldiers coming back from this war with PTSD or other psychological disorders had “Pre-Existing Conditions” and that the military would not pay to treat them, I think it has been corrected but what a bunch of asses they break you and don’t want to pay.

    The final issue is why does the military want to keep people in their ranks that no longer want to be there is it just sheer number? I mean is it ten percent, twenty percent. Is it that it is the only contract in the US that you can’t get out of unless to kill yourself or kill your fellow soldiers? It does not make any sense to me.

    I guess the Major could just be another wacko like Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nicholas, of course McVeigh was executed and apparently because Nicholas became a Christian he received a life sentenced. I real think if he gets that far the Major will get the former and not in a million years the latter.

    This is so messed up, hopefully they will make some changes that make sense.

  15. Brooks: …the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of American foreign policy.

    Seriously? I thought it was “the terrorists” or “Islamofacism” or “radical extremists.” I did not realize that the United States had official policy, foreign or otherwise, that all of Islam is bad. Good to know.

    Brooks: It denied, before the evidence was in, the possibility of evil. It sought to reduce a heinous act to social maladjustment. It wasn’t the reaction of a morally or politically serious nation.

    So… a morally and politically serious nation, one built on a body of laws and a centuries-old tradition of due process, is to eschew evidence and jump to the conclusion that we are confronting evil? Then presumably ramp up our struggle against all Islam? This is what Brooks considers to be moral and serious? Again, good to know.

    Why is this twerp still getting published. That would also be good to know.

  16. Montana above, touches something about Hasan’s story that intrigued me. We don’t know much about him, but it sounds like was a career military man, getting a nice career going in psychiatry, via the military. I’m sure he never expected the tables to turn in the way they did – the USA getting involved in multiple wars against people from his own religion, along with his own military buddies developing a hatred toward him, because of this religion. How sad that he couldn’t find a way out before the whole thing exploded.

    It reminded me of my own software engineering career arc, of ending up in an office full of right wing idiots, which ultimately ended my career. I had no idea when I took this final job that such political animosities, and my own inability to handle them well, would conspire in such a way to get me fired, which effectively ended my career. Fortunately I never had access to or interest in firearms, but the whole angry ordeal took a tremendous toll on my health and well being. I finally managed to forgive everyone and move on, but this took years. Hasan wasn’t so lucky.

  17. Brooks comes sooooo close to an epiphany and then steps back. He sees that “the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of American foreign policy”.* He just won’t let himself realize that we are at least as much aggressors as victims here.

    * This is not the official US government position on the nature of the wars, but this view is embraced by many of the soldiers and some generals.

  18. Another formulation: on an ultimate level, no one is responsible for his or her behavior, while on a practical level everyone, having achieved the artificial age of maturity, is. Also: David Brooks is no more capable of nuance than the average Neanderthal. He just knows more words.

  19. What claptrap.

    Only the Cabbage could have written a couplet like this one:

    Most people select stories that lead toward cooperation and goodness. But over the past few decades a malevolent narrative has emerged.

    First, it assumes facts not in evidence; human history might suggest “most” do NOT select such stories, and second, it provides the implication that this “new” malevolent narrative is some kind of historical aberration. Riiight. (Hmm, I wonder, has there ever been another narrative that saw history as a conflict between Christianity and Islam?)

    How Brooksian to pretend European history from say, 1100 AD on never happened in order to maintain a premise. Normally one has to read high school essays to get such pathetic and tortured manuvers.

    Also typically Brooksian is the acceptance as fact that Hasan actually did shout “Allah akbar” as he opened fire, which, last I checked, was still unsubstantiated rumor. And I don’t know anyone who was asserting that this was definitely a personal breakdown; mostly those resisting the Islamist extremist meme were arguing that, in the absence of actual confirmed facts that it was To Soon To Tell what was the motive. Brooks goes on to belittle the coverage which, rather than rushing to judgement, speculated about all manner of motive.

    Then, at last, a Brooksian tour de force – by refusing to instantly accept the story Brooks has chosen, the rest of the press has “absolved Hasan — before the real evidence was in — of his responsibility.” (Uh, what?) I see, withholding judgement in absence of proven facts is equivalent to judging as innocent, when Brooks has already decided what the facts are.

    Brooks doesn’t even deserve to raise the issue of good and evil. This piece is so lightweight and dishonest that it hasn’t even met the entry requirements for freshman philosophical discussion, much less deep moral questions. Just like David Brooks.

    Darn you, maha, for sucking me into reading another Brooks column. 😉

    I should really know better. Cabbage. Claptrap.

  20. @Jay-

    * This is not the official US government position on the nature of the wars, but this view is embraced by many of the soldiers and some generals.

    What, you mean Bush was lying AGAIN when he repeatedly denied that we were fighting Islam? I mean, this is on the little list of actually right things the WPE did in 8 years. But the military is not going to believe a Commander in Chief whom they worship if he says something inconvenient.

  21. Pat Pattillo – I was referring to Pat Robertson. Sorry for the misunderstanding.


    Apropos of nothing, here is a letter to the editor I had published in a local newspaper:

    One of the distinguishing factors of war in the late 20th and early 21st century is the disproportionate number of civilian deaths, relative to deaths of soldiers.

    These casualties have been dubbed “collateral damage,” as if they were a mere annoyance, like a small dent in a “fender bender.”

    In the two Persian Gulf Wars, civilians have represented 90 percent or more of all casualties. This is an abomination and a relatively new development in human history. In the distant past, armies would face each other on isolated battlefields and kill one another, far from innocent civilians.

    Now, wars are fought in urban settings, with many more civilians killed than soldiers. On this Veterans Day, let us remember not only fallen soldiers, the ones who voluntarily chose to face death — but the real victims of war, the innocent civilians.

  22. “Religion is a lot like alcohol or drugs isn’t it? Some people can live their whole lives casually believing in one religious fairy tale or another, without developing a “god” complex themselves; others (presumably like the shooter and Tim McVeigh) feel compelled to act out violently in order to prove themselves to the god voices in their head.”

    Low, “Murderer”:

    One more thing before I go
    One more thing I’ll ask you Lord
    You may need a murderer
    Someone to do your dirty work

    Don’t act so innocent
    I’ve seen you pound your fist into the earth
    And I’ve read your books
    It seems that you could use another fool
    Well I’m cruel
    And I look right through

    You must have more important things to do
    So if you need a murderer
    Someone to do your dirty work…

  23. What, you mean Bush was lying AGAIN when he repeatedly denied that we were fighting Islam?

    I thought he was the one saying the magog and magong or something or other
    (not up on my bible thumping)

    I think I have read shrinks have the highest suicide rate. I think the day to day mental agony they are exposed to rubs off and they cling to sanity themselves at times. I even wonder if most who take classes to be shrinks have had unusual trauma in their lives that made them interested in finding out more about the mind. At least the shrinks I have known have had that as incentive. I think IF he yelled something when he was shooting and out of his mind, it is not so surprising. I think even insane people try to justify their actions to themselves. I too think we are all a varying degrees of off, though most don’t come to the point of explosion with guns all around us and a specific target to aim toward.

  24. I guess the US military will carry out detail questioning as to why he did it and will prove all of us wrong.

    After that happens, I know some will still believe there point still has some merit.

    Earlier this year Sgt. John Russell, 44 (Catholic), of Sherman, Texas, is in custody at Camp Liberty in Baghdad where he apparently opened fire at a combat stress clinic Monday, killing five U.S. soldiers.

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