The Long View 2005-08-05: Police Powers; The Skeptical Assassin; The Ironies of ID; The Travelog Not To Be Described

Not the Assassins of Alamut

Not the Assassins of Alamut

The Aga Khan reportedly protested that the Assassin's Creed series falsified the history of his sect, the Nizaris. I am entirely sympathetic. But falsification may be more than the series is truly capable of, since it features an unusually insipid storyline.

I am also sympathetic to John's take on Intelligent Design. It is wrong, but not for the reason most of its opponents imagine, which is that it is religiously inspired and claims that God created the world. It is wrong because it doesn't give God enough credit.


Police Powers; The Skeptical Assassin; The Ironies of ID; The Travelog Not To Be Described

 

The case for treating terrorism as a law-enforcement problem was made in a recent article in the Times of London:

Urban terrorism can only be treated as a crime. Conspiring to explode devices in public places endangers life, destroys property and causes public nuisance. Like all criminal effects it has causes. A sensible democracy addresses those causes. But since ordinary citizens and even the police can do little about them in the short term, they rightly concentrate on the crime itself. The streets of London are alive with like dangers, with people who shoot, kill and maim dozens of people a year. We fight them all, whatever their proffered and spurious justification.

So what purpose was served last week by police crying, --They're still out there and trying to get you--? What good are daily briefings on --the inevitability-- of another attack? Street killings are inevitable, too. Apart from the gratuitous damage to public confidence and business, why stoke the very fears, hatreds and antagonisms that the bombers want stoked? Just get on and find the bombers, without publicising their allegedly awesome power to deflect blame from any deficiencies in public safety. Half the British Establishment seems to have signed up to the League of Friends of Terrorism.

There is something to be said for the policy of "pay no attention to them; that's just what they want." In this context, though, that attitude is lethally inapposite. There are three reasons:

The official response must differ in kind with the size of the threat: If the police suspect you are storing pirated copies of the latest Harry Potter book in your basement, then they call you "sir" when they knock on your door, and if you insist, they show you a warrant. In contrast, if your neighborhood is burning down and the only way to stop it is to make a firebreak, the police may kick down your door and blow up the building without so much as an "excuse me." It is true that society can get along with high levels of street crime. What it cannot live with is crimes that close down the transportation system or put the lights out. The rule has always been that such situations are not handled as ordinary criminal matters. There is no reason why terrorism should be an exception now.

Popular participation is needed to address the threat: The police by themselves can deal with the problems posed by a criminal gang that seeks to commit crime in secret. Only public vigilance can control a social underground that seeks to commit public outrages.

Multiculturalism is one of the underlying causes: Both official and popular response must take into account the possibility that cultural differences, which multiculturalism exists to preserve, might make a difference in the proclivity to commit terrorist acts.

It would be a disaster for Britain if everyone of South Asian ancestry were just deported, or ghettoized, or if Islam were simply proscribed, but draconian policies like that are false alternatives. It is entirely possible for liberal societies, in the old sense of "liberal," to defend themselves against threats like that posed by early 21st-century terrorism, quite without ceasing to be liberal. Before they can do that, however, they must recognize that extraordinary situations require extraordinary measures.

* * *

The archetype of holy terrorism is, if course, the sect of the Assassins, founded by Hasan-i Sabbah in the 12th century. Time Magazine records a visit by one of its reporters to Alamut, Sabbah's base in what is now Iran. Legend has it that Assassin recruits were drugged unconscious and brought to a pleasure palace at Alamut, which they were told was paradise. Then they were drugged again and returned to the world. A permanent return to paradise was promised them when they completed their mission of assassination, which generally entailed their own deaths. The reporter spoke to one of the keepers of the site:

"Was Sabbah the Osama bin Laden of his day?" I ask the guard before realizing that he was probably an Ismaili, one of the Assassins' descendants who are today spread across Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and follow the Aga Khan, a determinedly peaceful lot.

"Of course not," he replies angrily. "Sabbah never killed innocents. And his men only used a dagger, never poisons or easy ways of killing. They studied their victims, spent years getting close to them before they struck."

And the Assassin's Paradise? Could it be hidden away in the cleft of a nearby mountain?

It has never been found, the guard replied in the exultant tone of one who believed it never would be, because Sabbah had transported his Assassins not into a pleasure garden, but into Paradise itself.

I am inclined to agree with the guard, at least to the extent that it seems unlikely to me that the story about the artificial paradise is true. It is the sort of explanation for other people's behavior that requires they be much, much stupider than the person giving the stupid explanation.

* * *

President Bush, in contrast, favors intelligent design. At any rate, he is on record with the opinion that Intelligent Design (ID, to its friends) should be taught in the schools along with evolution.

The institutional home of ID is The Discovery Institute. Visitors may be reminded of, say, The Heritage Foundation, or of the other partisan think tanks. I have used material from Heritage myself, and even consulted its experts. They will give you a plausible argument; just don't expect a disinterested opinion.

The chief vehicle of ID evangelization these days seems to be The Privileged Planet, which is the title of a book and a related film. There have been confused reports that The Privileged Planet not only questions the sufficiency of Darwinian evolution as an explanation for the development of life, but also the reality of the Big Bang. This assertion is apparently quite untrue. What Intelligent Design does question is any cosmology that invokes a Multiverse, either of quantum mechanical timelines or of parallel time-space continua.

This is becoming hilarious. What we have here is an extreme form of the Anthropic Principle. If I understand correctly, ID posits not only the fine-tuning of the fundamental physical constants to make life possible, but also some version of the "Rare Earth" argument, which has it that Earth's history and astrophysical characteristics make it the only possible home of intelligent life in the universe. Unlike the Creationists, the ID people understand that the Big Bang is prima-facie evidence for theism; part of the reason the Multiverse was conceived was to disembarrass cosmology of a Creation story. (There are Multiverse Theologies, however.) As for the Rare Earth hypothesis, that was essentially what Stephen J. Gould was going on about all those years when he was proclaiming the randomness and unrepeatability of evolution, in the mistaken belief that he was exorcising religion from biology. Gould was probably wrong about the randomness of evolution. One great irony is that his arguments are now being used as evidence of the miraculous.

The greatest irony of all is that, while the supporters of ID are not, for the most part, interested in the objective pursuit of knowledge, they do at least have the merit of supporting a theory that is falsifiable in the Popperian sense, something which Darwinism is not. Does that mean that ID should be given equal time in the schools? By no means, not unless ID passes the usual tests of scientific utility. Should that happen (and it's possible, if unlikely), it would be a supplement to evolutionary theory, not a replacement for it.

* * *

Danny Yee is back from Leng, or at least from Mongolia, which is one of those places I did not know that you could go to as an ordinary tourist. A travelog and archive of images are going online here.

Mongolia, apparently, looks a great deal like Ray Bradbury's idea of Mars, down to the architecture.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site