About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Killing humanitarian workers

In an open society the question of the balance between individual rights and the need for security is perennially relevant, and one that does not admit of simple answers. Except, I think, under extreme circumstances, when people willfully kill innocent victims out of a distorted sense of cultural persecution and religious fervor.

No, I’m not talking about the 9/11 attacks, but about a much smaller and more recent assault on our sense of human decency. On August 13, three women and one man working for the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian organization, were killed on the road near Kabul, Afghanistan, by a group of Taliban supporters. The word “taliban” means student, something that hardly squares with vicious murderous actions. Ironically, the three women, Shirley Case, 30, Nicole Dial, 30, and Jacqueline Kirk, 40, where involved in education programs for children (the man, Mohammad Aimal, 25, was their driver). Apparently, the Taliban consider the education of children a crime against their backward religion, and do not hesitate to kill in order to avenge such an affront.

The Taliban in question, should they ever be caught, should be wiped off the face of the earth. People like that simply do not deserve to share the planet with the rest of us. Readers of this blog should know that I am certainly no “hawk,” and that I tend to question the use of violence because it is much more often than not a way to suppress dissent or further repress minorities and the weak. But I am no pacifist (in the sense of someone who is against war at all costs) either, and I truly think that even open societies have to draw the line when they are faced with people who reject democratic institutions and resort to violence simply in the name of their crazy ideas of how the world should be run. And no, I’m no postmodernist either, so I think I can make a darn good case that in this instance we are right and the Taliban are dead wrong.

I feel strongly about the people who work at the IRC in part because it hits close to home: my wife is the Director of Emergency Response at the organization, and she knew one of the women. While I am here safely blogging away in Brooklyn, she is in Georgia, where the Russians keep advancing with their tanks and hope to squelch another democratic country with their bombs (not that the Georgians are completely blameless in this either, but that’s another story). George W. once famously said of Vladimir Putin: “I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” What a load of crap, can our moronic President tell us where the hell is Putin’s soul now?

Of course, part of the fault here rests with the Bush administration, which has diverted resources and personnel to Iraq rather than where the real 9/11 problem was: Afghanistan (well, there is Saudi Arabia too, but that’s yet another story). The area where the IRC staff members were ambushed should long ago have been secured by the allied forces and by a well established Afghan government, and the Taliban should have been pursued well into Pakistan, and could have been completely eliminated in a matter of weeks. Instead, years later, things are going slightly less badly in Iraq -- a place where we created the security problem to begin with -- and are steadily worsening in Afghanistan. Innocent women trying to help children lost their lives because a group of religious zealots keeps acting with impunity while the most powerful man on earth spends his time patting the back of the US women’s beach volleyball team for “good luck.” A more sad and infuriating contrast could not have come across the news wire this week.


  1. Hello Massimo, love the blog. I definitely agree with your comments here: certain crimes and mindsets simply do not deserve "tolerance".

    In previous posts you have commented that you feel the "New Atheism" of Dawkins et al. is "too abrasive" and too confrontational. I have felt this at times too - perhaps we don't need to attack moderate religion - but incidents such as this change my mind, specifically in relation to one argument of Dawkins': specifically, that, although it is only the most fanatical of zealots who perpetrate this kind of abomination, the moderate religion which many Western countries harbour as a sort of pseudo-standard is in some ways to blame, since it sets the precedent that religious belief is a valid excuse for impinging on the rights of others, and robs those countries of any moral basis to oppose this kind of thing. Afterall, if a US government official can use the bible to justify discrimination against gays, how can he then say the Taliban is wrong for using their religion as a justification for immoral acts? Either "faith" is a valid source of morality, or it is not.

    Now, I'm not for a second suggesting that denying the rights of homosexuals is on a par with killing humanitarian workers, but the fact remains that if a society accepts that religion is a valid justification for actions which would otherwise be viewed as immoral, then how can we claim the right to condemn others for using their religions to justify immoral actions. It is for that reason that I tend to see more eye-to-eye with Dawkins' abrasiveness, and the need to combat religion and faith-based reasoning, no matter how moderate.

    I was wondering what your thoughts are on this?

    -nfitzgerald ( http://bespokeblog.wordpress.com )

  2. You make a good point, but what Dawkins is missing (willfully or not) is that there are plenty of mainstream religionists who are staunch supporters of human rights and who prefer a strong wall of separation between church and state.

    Those religionists are our allies (and they are very numerous!), and to blame them for Taliban-like problems, like Dawkins does, is both disingenuous and counterproductive, I think.

  3. Hmm, but it still seems to me that the root of this problem is the very idea that "faith" can ever be entered as a valid argument for any sort of belief. Yes, I agree that religion as it manifests itself in most individuals is harmless, but the problem isn't individuals, but the mindset of "faith" itself. What that mindset CAN lead to, not necessarily what it always does lead to.

    Afterall, even if your assertion is only "a god exists", if that assertion is based solely on faith, you have opened the floodgates for the other guy to make any faith-based assertions he wishes to, and you have no standing from which to argue with him, since you have admitted "faith" as a valid source of truth. Yes, the majority of the faithful are harmless, but if we as a society didn't suggest that it is a good thing to be "full of faith", then we'd be on much firmer moral footing to combat this kind of thing.

  4. But I am not defending that idea that faith is a good argument, or even a good habit of mind. We should still fight that with good education and critical thinking.

    What we should not fight is the right of individuals to be irrational, if they so wish. As long as they don't act on their irrationality and kill others...

  5. Massimo,

    you do pacifists and postmodernists a disservice. Here is Gandhi on non-violence and war:

    Fighting a violent war is better than accepting injustice. So, really there is no contradiction in fighting a just war, and believing in non-violence.

    Gandhi also wrote that a woman was well adviced to use all means including violent response to defend herself against an assailant/rapist. I am a committed pacifist in the sense above, and I am not alone. Such terms are not mathematically defined with regard to their precision, and the most extreme interpretation should not be used to describe and criticise them.

    Here is one of Wikipedia's many descriptions of pacifism:

    the condemnation of force except in cases where it is absolutely necessary to advance the cause of peace

    This talk by Noam Chomsky is of particular relevance:


    Chomsky quotes Tolstoy and adds his own thoughts about war and violence. Chomsky, by the way, calls himself a "non-pacifist" on the same grounds that I suspect you do. I humbly submit that both of you are wrong ;-).

  6. Apparently, the Taliban consider the education of children a crime against their backward religion, and do not hesitate to kill in order to avenge such an affront.


    I think you may have failed to notice that these aid workers were deeply committed to education of girls, which was probably their "crime". Of course, that makes it worse, not better.

    As for your main sentiment, agreed. Kind of reminds me of the song by Bruce Coburn "If I had a rocket launcher" (about Nicarauga).

    P.S. I remember a documentary on women in Afghanistan where women were shown visiting a clandestine beautician, getting all dolled up, then donning their burkhas to go back into the street.

    P.P.S. While I'm venting, I haven't forgotten the Buddhist stayues either. Or Savonarola, for that matter.

  7. Here is a video clip which points out the connection with educating girls (and women teachers as well):


  8. Massimo,

    You've implied in this comment that our very use of goods and services anywhere in the world, or the lending arms to combat communist or totalitarian goals outside of our own country, makes the US the culprit for darn near everything that could possibly go wrong anywhere in the world. And that's just really beyond absurd.

    Ever thought to lay some of the blame at the feet of the countries own leaders or their own centuries old cultural practices? That has got to be AT LEAST 8/10ths of the issue.

    Without the goods and services that we in the USA buy, (and that is quite a bit, btw) there would significantly more poverty and much less employment in some of the places that you are speaking of. And the fact that some well intentioned (american?) volunteers were attacked in Afghanistan, flows over & gets its life from the same attitude of resistance that is generated from persons who share YOUR ideology, not GWs. They don't merely hate us because someone has come to educate their children. It is much more complicated than that. Many non-americans hate us because leftist ACADEMIA all over the world has foolishly burdened some of these poor & superstitious people with the idea that they are victims of everybody or anything that wants help them change their old destructive ways! And even education alone does not remedy the tendency towards destructiveness and hatred. After all, you are educated, and it is quite clear that you do obviously hate. And without cause, mind you.

    If some ill intentioned folk didn't continue to lay this nonsense on the citizens of Arab (s) and others, that the US has nothing but their worst interest in mind, I can guarantee you that things like this just would not be happening! And if attacks continue to come, they most definitely do so on the basis of the permissive "authority" of anti-American sentiments.

    So if you think you can go on and on about all this and be responsible for absolutely nothing....

  9. I realised that in my comment I forgot to touch on my issue with your remark on postmodernists. I came back to add my thoughts on that, but reading the comments from Caliana makes me think that no defence of postmodernists or -ism is required, for that sort of reasoning is what is the contrast to postmodernism, i.e., postmodernism (except in some very special cases) does not stand in contrast or opposition to scientific or logical/analytical reasoning.

  10. Caliana,

    welcome back! I missed your nonsensical posts. Then again, it is when I read your non sequiturs that I really get discouraged about the status of rational discourse in the world and reach for the bottle... :)

  11. Hi Massimo,

    Sheldon here under a different login.

    I would like to extend my condolences, because obviously you are somewhat close to this event by just two degrees of separation.

    There can be no good argument against the statement that religious totalitarian fanatics like the Taliban need to be decisively defeated.

    But we should pause for a second to think about what is the best course of action to accomplish this goal. Or at least what course of action is counter-productive or immoral.

    I am troubled by the way that U.S. military action has been used in pursuit of this goal.

    The initial U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, through aerial bombardment, killed between 5-6 thousand civilians. More than what died on 9-11.

    And these methods have continued.
    Just withn the last 2 years or so 60 Minuntes aired a segment on Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president, pleading with the U.S. to stop using air-strikes that are resulting in civilian deaths.

    Perhaps the reliance on air-strikes are a result of not enough boots on the ground to pursue the Taliban? I don't know.

    But I am skeptical, even with Obama being president, that U.S. military power is the solution.

    Internal cultural change is the solution to these dismal state of affairs in Afghanistan. How this is supposed to occur, I honestly don't know.

    And by the way, I don't consider myself a pacifist either.


  12. Just thought I would post a piece and a link a recent article by Liliana Segura, questioning U.S. military action in Afghanistan.


    Those who pretend to speak for what's best for the people of Afghanistan ought to consider the opinions of Afghans themselves, especially those who have been fighting for years for their country. Take the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), struggling for 30 years for human rights and self-determination for the people of Afghanistan:

    Since the overthrow of the Soviet-installed puppet regime in 1992, the focus of RAWA's political struggle has been against the fundamentalists' and the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban's criminal policies and atrocities against the people of Afghanistan in general and their incredibly ultra-male-chauvinistic and anti-woman orientation in particular. … The U.S. "War on Terrorism" removed the Taliban regime in October 2001, but it has not removed religious fundamentalism, which is the main cause of all our miseries. In fact, by reinstalling the warlords in power in Afghanistan, the U.S. administration is replacing one fundamentalist regime with another. The U.S. government and Mr. Karzai mostly rely on Northern Alliance criminal leaders who are as brutal and misogynist as the Taliban.

    RAWA believes that freedom and democracy can't be donated; it is the duty of the people of a country to fight and achieve these values. Under the U.S.-supported government, the sworn enemies of human rights, democracy and secularism have gripped their claws over our country and attempted to restore their religious fascism on our people.

  13. HAHA! *phew* I was worried that there was something wrong with me that I couldn't make heads or tails of Caliana's post.

  14. Cal said,

    "Many non-americans hate us because leftist ACADEMIA all over the world has foolishly burdened some of these poor & superstitious people with the idea that they are victims of everybody or anything that wants help them change their old destructive ways!"

    I have been trying to figure this out all day. How in the world did leftist academics get into the heads of Afghani peasants and convince them to hate America?

  15. A copy of the comment I left to this post on secular philosophy:

    I have thought long and hard about these kinds of situations and haven't come up with a resolution that is altogether to my satisfaction. Still, I have come to something like a conclusion about what seems to me to be a catch-22.

    Do the people who killed the humanitarian workers deserve to die for it? Fairly clearly so. Would I wish to live in a society which sought to kill them rather than one that sought to ensure they were unable to ever hurt another person, without killing them if possible? No. Such a society brutalises everyone in it. By condoning any kind of killing we help perpetuate an atmosphere in which some people think it is OK to kill humanitarian workers. Having said that, I want to stress that in this particular case it seems necessary to try and kill those who attacked the workers. But this is not because they deserve to die but simply because they will probably kill again. Even so, killing them will inevitably brutalise us that little bit more.

    Part of the further cost of failing to maintain high moral standards can be seen when we think about Georgia. Russia has invaded a small neighbour to exert its regional influence - people who believe (if there are any!) for one milisecond the Russian claim to be defending the 75 thousand South Ossetians are fools ignorant of history. It would be good if at this point the leaders of our countries: US, UK and , in my case, Australia and Poland, were in a position of moral authority to condemn the Russian actions. As it is, however, their condemnations are hypocritical. All the countries I listed have forces in Iraq.

    I think something of this was recognised by the killers in Afganistan. The humanitarian workers by helping the Afganis were helping our own society become a better one. They were also helping our society regain some of the moral authority that Bush and his collaborators have been happy to toss aside.

    I am very, very glad to know that there are people on the ground in Georgia helping those who are suffering right now. I wish them all the best, especially Massimo's wife, whom I've had a chance to meet. Perhaps Massimo could pass on some information about how we could support them, ourselves?

  16. deisidaimon,

    nice post, balanced arguments. You asked:

    "Perhaps Massimo could pass on some information about how we could support them, ourselves?"

    Well, the best way is, believe it or not, to support them financially, which you can do here:


    The same page points out ways to get involved and to stay informed, the latter a surprisingly underestimated task by many Americans.

  17. Thanks for the information, going there right now. I have no idea why the comment page gives the name of my blog rather than my name.

    Konrad Talmont-Kaminski


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