It gets worse. According to the Los Angeles Times reporter who broke the story, Boykin would show audiences a picture he took in Somalia after the “Blackhawk Down” fiasco in Mogadishu. Pointing to an unnatural-looking dark streak in the sky, he said, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your enemy. It is the principalities of darkness. It is a demonic presence in that city that God revealed to me as the enemy.”
The usual suspects quickly rounded themselves up and the cultural skirmish began. Liberals denounced the general’s remarks as divisive and likely to offend Muslims worldwide, and called for his resignation. “The most important global struggle,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman, “is not between one religion and another but between fanaticism and tolerance.” Conservatives rushed to Boykin’s defense. Not only does he have the right to express his religious conviction, they argued, but he is also right that America is a Christian nation, engaged in a war against evil.
Following the culture wars is usually interesting. It is often infuriating. But in this case, it’s just embarrassing. The mark of the devil over Mogadishu? And this from a man in charge of military intelligence?
The problem here is not intolerance, divisiveness, or extremism. It is rank irrationality. The whole exchange is another tiresome example of a false dichotomy: dogmatism vs. relativism. Conservatives are right that liberals are afraid to assert the truth of their convictions. Liberals are right that conservatives are claiming truth for sectarian religious dogmas—and rightly alarmed that they invoke those dogmas to justify war.
What both sides ignore is the alternative of reason and rational certainty. When Islamic terrorists attack us out of hatred for our secular way of life, our pursuit of happiness, our wealth and productive achievements, it is reason—not Jesus—that tells us they are viciously and objectively wrong. And reason tells us that we are objectively right in responding with force.
Earth to General Boykin and his conservative allies: You are defending a country founded in the Enlightenment, the era when reason was finally recognized as the arbiter of truth. You are relying on America’s vast wealth, created by people who used their minds, not their prayers, to work and produce. You are employing sophisticated military technology created by scientists whose highest commitment is to facts, observation, logic, and proof. You would not count on incantations or sacred texts to find bin Laden’s cave. How can you rely on such means to justify your cause?
Earth to Ellen Goodman and her liberal co-ideologists: You are living in a country founded in the Enlightenment, by men who believed in the power of reason to find the truth and create a good society. The tolerance you enjoy is not an ultimate value; it is a means to an end, an enabling condition for peaceful cooperation and the rational exchange of ideas. If peace and reason are not objective values, worth defending when attacked, then you have no case for tolerance in the first place. And to judge by your vehement antipathy to dogmatism, you’re really not willing to tolerate that, are you?
The next time one of these skirmishes begins—whether it’s the Ten Commandments in a courtroom, the Pledge of Allegiance, or a leader’s invocation of faith—could we try to avoid another such witless battle?
David Kelley earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, and later taught cognitive science and philosophy at Vassar College and Brandeis University. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, and elsewhere. His books include Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand; The Evidence of the Senses, and The Art of Reasoning, one of the most widely used logic textbooks in the country. Kelley is founder and executive director of The Atlas Society.
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