After showing a new video of the Kouachi brothers in Paris, Chris Hayes Tuesday night had a guest, Reza Aslan, a scholar of religions and author of No god but God, the Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Professor Aslan has studied the violence in the Middle East and in France, the United States and other places, and the western response to it. Aslan acknowledged that there is violence and extremism in certain sexts of Islam, but he said that terrorism is not an ideology, it is a tactic. We make a mistake if we think that all sects of Islam are the same. Hayes said that this error—thinking they are the same—underlay the failure of our Patriot Act. “[Those who would commit violence on us] don’t want us to think,” Hayes said. Hayes proposed that the passage of the French Patriot Act yesterday was an act of insanity on a level with our own Patriot Act, which, he said, created the necessary failures that led to thirteen years of war and bloodshed. The failures we experience when violence is perpetrated on us—we think the violence clarifies our situation, and it doesn’t—arise out of our inability to think clearly. “We must be careful not to become the evil we deplore.” Hayes closed the interview with a question for Dr. Aslan: “Has this act of violence made us more capable of thought?” Dr. Aslan reflected for a moment, and then said, “These kinds of events just seem to solidify the biases that we have.” Depressing.
We are surrounded by violence. The barbarity in Paris followed the bloody clashes in Ferguson, the Shaw neighborhood of St Louis, in New York city, in South Los Angeles, and Victorville, California, where unarmed black men were shot by police, with resulting angry demonstrations in the streets. It feels like the only thing we have experienced in the last year has been immense, culture-wide bloody racial or religious or gender-driven clashes.
C and I saw Imitation Game a week ago and then I started reading the book on which it was based, Alan Turing: The Enigma, by Andrew Hodges (1983). Much of the middle third of the book, takes place in an obscure country house in the UK, as the UK is in a desperate struggle with Nazi Germany. Turing, a gay man, was a genius at mathematics who was a professor at Cambridge, and was asked to help manage the attempts to break the Nazi communications code, called Enigma, used to communicate with Germany’s ships at sea. But when the code was broken and the war was ended, Turing sank into another deeper, even more violent, conflict, this time perpetrated by the British government on the mathematician himself. Turing, honest and direct in all things, had told the police that he had had sex with a man, who may have robbed him. The police charged Turing with indecency. He was tried and convicted, and sentenced to chemical castration. In 1952, he apparently ate the apple, poisoned with cyanide.
At the end of his interview last night, Chris Hayes said to Reza Aslan, “The terrorists want us above all not to think.” That is, principally, we are not to think about the distinctions among people—as if all people in the West are responsible for the difficulties al Qaeda members experience. Turing had fought the power of Nazi Germany on the question of what it meant to think, and had won—he made a machine that worked—but when the violence of his own state was turned against him, chemical castration! he stopped thinking, and his suffering was so great, he only felt. This incredibly brilliant man stopped thinking, suffered beyond measure, and took a bite of the poisoned apple.
Chris Hayes believes that terrorists know this. When suffering becomes intense enough, people stop thinking. We should remember this, when our side proposes to torture people, when we send off drones to the other side, and when we mount our decades-long wars against the Muslim world, and go into a grocery store where citizens have gone to get food, with plans to kill them with our weapons.