THE WAR ON SENSELESSNESSSeptember 18, 2001
I read this essay aloud on Sept. 16 when the Atheist Community of Austin held a public secular remembrance ceremony for the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The word I've been hearing over and over again to describe Tuesday's terrible attack is "senseless". And that pretty much sums it up. These terrorist attacks made no sense. They were deeply irrational, and display no grasp of reality whatsoever. We can imagine what the perpetrators hoped to accomplish, plotting in darkened rooms half a world away. They may have hoped for the collapse of our economy, our demoralization, and our retreat from involvement in the Middle East. But here in America and around the world, in the clear light of day, we cannot imagine how anyone with a lick of sense could have thought that these attacks would accomplish those goals.
It hasn't worked, of course. Senseless acts seldom do. It has served only to rouse the world's anger, and to instill civilized nations with a great resolve to root out those responsible, and bring them to justice. Right now they're trying to figure out who that is. Some people think it's taking too long - that when the evidence *began* to point at Osama Bin Laden in his Afghanistan hideout, we should have instantly stormed in there and slaughtered the lot of them. But that early evidence could have been wrong. Bin Laden could have fled elsewhere. An attack before we know what's going on would be ALSO be senseless, because it would not accomplish OUR goal. Some say that "attacking" won't work even after we've located the perpetrators. I'm just glad to see that kind of discussion taking place, because whatever the response is, we don't want it to be senseless.
*Senselessness* is the one enemy behind Tuesday's attacks that we have positively identified. We don't have to wait for any investigations to be concluded before we declare war on it. And we don't have to join the military to fight it. I can tell you for a fact that senselessness is not only hiding out in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Senselessness is the human propensity to believe things that are simply not worthy of belief. It is a tool that unscrupulous manipulators use to take advantage of our hopes and fears. Somebody used it to convince those terrorist pilots to sacrifice their lives, and there are those who use it right here in America. You can see it at work in the words of Jerry Falwell - who just told his flock that these attacks are America's fault for not being fundamentalist enough to satisfy his god. MOST Christians don't say that. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson say that. You can see it in other suicide cults like Heaven's Gate - whose leader convinced his followers that a simple comet was really an alien spacecraft come to liberate the few who were brave enough to drink cyanide. You can hear it in the voices of those calling for intolerance against ALL people of Arab descent living in America. You can see it at work in ads for TV psychics, who suck the financial veins of anyone foolish enough to believe they're able to see the future in tarot cards, or speak to your dead relatives. And you can hear it in the words of Osama Bin Laden, when he tells his followers that to murder for Allah is to become a hero. Most Muslims don't say that. Osama Bin Laden and a handful of other extremists say that.
We are in a war against senselessness. We can all fight this war by refusing to be tricked by hucksters and charlatans. We can fight it by speaking out whenever we hear them weaving their webs of deceit. We can fight it by questioning the ideas we're offered, and actually caring enough about the truth to make sure a claim is true BEFORE we consent to believe it. Ask Jerry Falwell to prove not only that his god exists, but that he is God's legitimate spokesman. Osama Bin Laden claims the exact same thing. Get a second opinion from qualified scientists before you agree that a comet is really a spaceship. Stop and ask yourself if the terrorists' *race* was really responsible for their attack before you throw a brick through an Arab-owned shop window. Demand to know why nobody who claims to have psychic powers warned us before Tuesday's attack became a reality. And if anybody comes to you and says, "Shoot that abortion doctor. Beat up that homosexual. Fly that plane into a building full of civilians. God is love, but for this he's making you an exception"... laugh right in that person's face, and then warn your children, friends, and neighbors about them.
Of course I'm picking obvious examples because I don't want to lose any of you by questioning something you already believe. But senselessness is a tool used by manipulators to bend you to their will - and they will keep trying until they come up with a senseless claim so desirable or so beautiful or so frightening to you that you'll feel you just HAVE TO believe it. And you'd better re-examine your own cherished beliefs, because it's possible that they've already got you.
This won't be over when we capture or kill Osama Bin Laden, because terrorism existed without him and can continue to exist without him. It won't be over when every nation on Earth agrees not to harbor terrorists, because terrorists like the Unibomber can operate right here in America where we don't tolerate terrorism for a second. But we DO turn a deaf ear to the most outrageous lies and nonsense. I once sat in a public restaurant and overheard a man in the next booth carefully explaining to his companion why Jesus wanted everyone in America to own a gun. I cringed, but I said nothing. I will never again allow something like that to pass unchallenged. THAT is how senselessness, hate, and terrorism survive in our very midst.
Terrorism won't stop, won't hardly slow down until *senselessness* is made so shameful and embarrassing that nobody will be able to say such things without challenge. It won't be over until we drive irrationality and senselessness itself into hiding. Not by DENYING the right of free speech to people like Falwell or the Unibomber or even Osama Bin Laden - but by using our OWN right of free speech to expose and ridicule the senselessness of their claims.