Reflecting On The Killing Of Three Muslim Students

I rarely post about current events or news stories, but I have a rare bit of time and this even merits attention and reflection.

Last night, three Muslim students — Deah Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — were shot dead at a housing complex near University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The perpetrator was Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who handed himself over to the police afterward. News is still unfolding as of this post, and the motive remains unclear, though some reports claim cite a dispute over parking — of all things to kill lover.

The natural question that comes to mind (or that should) is whether this incident was motivated by anti-Islam bigotry. This would certainly fit the pattern of post-9/11 attacks and harassment towards Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim (namely Sikhs). Opposition to Islam, ranging from criticism of the religion to out-and-out bigotry, have definitely seen an uptick in recent months following high-profile incidents involving Islamic extremists, such as the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the barbarism of Boko Haram and IS.

Given the present lack of information, it is difficult to determine why Hicks killed these people, although some sources have pointed out his open condemnation and mockery of organized religion on social media, as well as his association with atheist groups (albeit mainstream ones like Atheist for Equality that, to my knowledge, do not advocate violence or discrimination against religion people).

Ultimately, whether or not the perpetrator’s dislike of religion played a role in his decision to escalate a dispute into a murderous assault, it remains true that his atheism did not prevent him from such an immoral crime.

This tragic incident reaffirms why I much prefer the label of secular humanist over just plain atheist, precisely because mere disbelief in a deity or the supernatural says nothing about one’s morality or character. Atheism denotes what you do not have — religious beliefs — but not what you have chosen to replace said beliefs or ethical foundations with. Hence why atheists run the gamut from humanists like Albert Einstein to monsters like Joseph Stalin.

It goes without saying that a humanist framework is one that precludes violence against other humans, regardless of their beliefs, religious or otherwise. Of course people will always harm and kill one another regardless of whatever authority or precept they alleged to follow or associate with, whether it is secular or religious in nature. But this fact of human nature, whereby bad actions are caused by all sorts of other factors outside professed belief, does not preclude the creation of a comprehensive and authoritative moral and ethical framework.

Moreover, it is worth pointing out the distinction between being critical of religion as an idea and institution — all while still recognizing the humanity of its adherents — and hating religiously identifying people on such a visceral and hateful level as the perpetrator allegedly did. I myself am highly critical of religion as a whole, but I certainly do not view religious people as this faceless Other without personality, hopes, dreams, feelings, and humanity. Atheist or not, there is a difference between disliking or criticizing beliefs and ideas and taking the next step to hate or kill those innocents who hold such beliefs without harm to anyone else.

That said, it is important to remind fellow atheists to be careful to distinguish themselves (and their atheist leaders) as religious skeptics from religious bigots who incite such attacks or (in thankfully rare cases) directly perpetrates them. I am not trying to make this tragedy about me or the atheist movement, but highlighting the inherent dangers of proclaiming moral superiority by virtue of casting off religion while ignoring that one can still be a bad person, morally or behaviorally, regardless of what one believes.

If we are going to promote a skeptical view of religion, and opposition to its more harmful affects (both institutional and ideological), than we must do so alongside the propagation of a humanist ethic. By all means, critique religion and seek to minimize its harm, as I certainly do, but also recognize and fight the harms of non-religious origin, and more importantly see the humanity of the billions of fellow humans who, like it or not, hold religious views of some form or another.

All that said, I do not mean to read into this senseless act the larger issue of bigotry, lack of empathy, and the like; while likely factors, the details once again remain unknown for certain. It is also certainly not my intention to exploit a tragedy as an opportunity to get on a soap box for my own purposes and movement.

Rather, I am just tired of seeing people kill each other in such wanton manners for one reason or another: ideological, religious, anti-religious, opportunistic, etc. While I know this horror is a fact of human existence (at least for the foreseeable future — I cling to a kernel of utopianism), that does not mean that I want to be indifferent to the large psychological, social, and ideological factors underpinning so much of the killing and harming that goes on everyday somewhere in the world.

Given what little help I can lend to these unfortunate victims, the very least I can do — and in fact, feel obligated to do — is use the opportunity to reflect upon my own moral foundations and those of my fellow humans, both secular and non-religious. Maybe it is my way of trying to make sense of the senseless, or trying to derive meaning from sheer tragedy, but it is all I can do. I like to think that if enough of us continuous reflect on why we do the awful things we do, and what we can do about it, such barbarous acts will become more rare if not extinct.

One can still dream. In the meantime, my heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones. From what reports show, these young people were not only bright and talented, but socially conscious and humanitarian. By all accounts, they were, in other words, what humanists should aspire to be.

Link

Have Young Americans Lost Their Moral Compass?

In recent months there has been a visible struggle in the media to come to grips with the leaking, whistle-blowing and hacktivism that has vexed the United States military and the private and government intelligence communities. This response has run the gamut. It has involved attempts to condemn, support, demonize, psychoanalyze and in some cases canonize figures like Aaron Swartz, Jeremy Hammond, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

In broad terms, commentators in the mainstream and corporate media have tended to assume that all of these actors needed to be brought to justice, while independent players on the Internet and elsewhere have been much more supportive. Tellingly, a recent Time magazine cover story has pointed out a marked generational difference in how people view these matters: 70 percent of those age 18 to 34 sampled in a poll said they believed that Snowden “did a good thing” in leaking the news of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program.

So has the younger generation lost its moral compass?

No. In my view, just the opposite.

The article is a pretty engaging read, and I recommend reading it and deciding for yourselves. 

Human Nature and Apathy

Many people, myself included, lament the fact that our species is so apathetic to the widespread suffering that is plentifully around us. However tragic, such indifference is both natural and expected. Our minds were not evolved for absorbing the sheer amount of stimulus that exists in the world.

Only very recently have most humans become regularly exposed to the overwhelming amount of people, events, and information that exists and multiplies all around us. There is a limit to how much we can think about or emotionally react to, and that’s why our immediate suffering — our trivial “first world problems” — is felt far more strongly that the more horrible but distant misery that exists out there. Telling someone that others have it worse is admirable but futile because our brains feel the personal circumstances more substantively and intimately than abstract ones.

It’s for this reason that society will obsess more about individual negative events highlighted in news versus the bigger but nameless and faceless statistics of human poverty. In fact, this is the same reason you’re more likely to donate to an individual suffering person than to broader charitable in general — look up Paul Slovik’s “psychic numbing” phenomenon. In some sense, this may even be a merciful defense mechanism — imagine if all the tremendous suffering in the world was equally impactful. We’d likely succumb to severe depression and misanthropy, or become very withdrawn.

Of course, I’m not saying this excuses callousness or apathy. We can still love and care for one another beyond our closest loved ones. We don’t need to be deeply affected by all the human suffering in the world in order to be troubled by it and seek to alleviate it. Empathy and social responsibility are intrinsic to our species. We must simply adapt to the existence of this new global community and expand our circle of compassion and consideration to be far wider. It’s difficult but not impossible, in my opinion.

What are your thoughts?

What is Proper Justice for the “Unintentionally” Evil?

As I’ve argued here before, few people willingly choose to be immoral. An evil nature is often the product of evil forces, such as childhood abuse, abject poverty, social oppression, psychological illness, and so on.

It’s no coincidence that the overwhelming majority of the world’s tyrants, murderers, and criminals had traumatic or otherwise troubled upbringings; even those evil individuals that endured no such experiences often display signs of some sort of mental illness (although poorer folks would have a harder time identifying these issues, let alone receiving the proper care).

It is for this reason that I am often conflicted about the extent to which we can assign blame for the evil actions of certain individuals. Certainly, I’m every bit as disgusted and shocked by the immorality of criminals as anyone else, and like the rest of society, I believe lawbreakers – especially the dangerous kind – should of course face justice and imprisonment.

But this doesn’t mean I view such people as unequivocally bad; that is to say, I don’t see them as evil for the sake of evil, but as evil due to forces beyond their control. Arguably, had these factors not been present in their lives (namely in their formative years as children), they would’ve turned out different. They wouldn’t be criminals. It’s hard to say of course, but it’s a reasonable conclusion to draw given what we know about the early lives of evil men.

A case in point is the recent news about Cristian Fernandez, which was the trigger of these thoughts. This thirteen year-old boy was recently charged as an adult for the brutal murder of his two year-old brother, as well as the sexual molestation of his five year-old brother. It should go without saying that no well-adjusted child would do something so heinous without explanation. Indeed, were you to read about this boy’s life while unaware of his crimes, you’d feel tremendous pity for him. As HuffPo reports:

Fernandez was born in Miami in 1999 to Biannela Susana, who was 12. The 25-year-old father received 10 years’ probation for sexually assaulting her.

Two years later, both mother and son went to foster care after authorities in South Florida found the toddler, filthy and naked, walking in the street at 4 a.m. near the motel where his grandmother did drugs.

In 2007, when Fernandez was 8, the Department of Children and Families investigated a report that he was sexually molested by an older cousin. Officials said other troubling incidents were reported, including claims that he he killed a kitten, simulated sex with classmates and masturbated at school.

In October 2010, Fernandez and his mother were living in Hialeah, a Miami suburb, with his mother’s new husband. Fernandez suffered an eye injury so bad that school officials sent him to the hospital where he was examined for retinal damage. Fernandez told officers that his stepfather had punched him. When officers went to the family’s apartment, they found the stepfather dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Soon, the family moved north to Jacksonville and Fernandez enrolled in middle school, getting straight A’s. They settled in a bland, beige public housing complex.

A few months later on March 14, 2011, deputies were called to the apartment: Fernandez’ baby brother, 2-year-old David, had died at a local hospital. The medical examiner determined that the toddler had a fractured skull, bruising to his left eye and a bleeding brain.

Susana, then 25, admitted to investigators that she had left Fernandez, David and her other children home alone. When she returned, she said she found David unconscious. She waited eight-and-a-half hours before taking him to the hospital and searched “unconsciousness” online and texted friends during that time.

Susana also revealed that two weeks before David’s death, Fernandez had broken the toddler’s leg while wrestling.

Susana was charged with aggravated manslaughter; the medical examiner said David might have survived if she had taken him to the hospital sooner for the head injury. She pleaded guilty in March and could get 30 years.

Fernandez, who had first been questioned as a witness, was soon charged with first-degree murder. The other felony charge was filed after his 5-year-old half-brother told a psychiatrist that Fernandez had sexually assaulted him.

The boy has talked openly to investigators and therapists about his life; the gritty details are captured in various court documents.

“Christian denied any plans or intent to kill his brother,” one doctor wrote. “He seemed rather defensive about discussing what triggered his anger. He talked about having a `flashback’ of the abuse by his stepfather as the motive for this offense … Christian was rather detached emotionally while discussing the incident.”

Based on psychological evaluations, prosecutors say that Fernandez poses a significant risk of violence. That’s why he is being detained pre-trial and why they charged him with two first-degree felonies.

I sometimes ask myself if I would’ve turned out any differently had I endured similar circusmtances in life. Obviously, not everyone who suffers through such trauma turns out to be a bad person; conversely, not everyone who is raised in a happy and healthy family end up a good one either. But it’s clear that one’s genes, environment, and social influences have some sort of bearing on your personality and health. It’s hard to imagine that young Fernandez would’ve ended up the exact same way had it not be for such horrific circumstances shaping his life. Indeed, that’s something that legal officials are grappling with too.

Based on psychological evaluations, prosecutors say that Fernandez poses a significant risk of violence. That’s why he is being detained pre-trial and why they charged him with two first-degree felonies.

Yet difficult questions remain for Judge Mallory Cooper: Should a child so young spend his life in prison? Does Fernandez understand his crimes, and can he comprehend the complex legal issues surrounding his case?

In August, Cooper ruled that police interrogations of Fernandez in the murder and sexual assault cases are not admissible, because the boy couldn’t knowledgeably waive his rights to remain silent and consult an attorney. Prosecutors are appealing.

The defense wants the charges dismissed, saying the U.S. Supreme Court ruling banning sentences of life without parole for juveniles makes it impossible for them to advise Fernandez since the Florida Legislature has not changed state law. Prosecutors say they never said they would seek a mandatory life sentence – they say the old Florida law that called for a 25-year-to-life sentence could apply.

Mitch Stone, a Jacksonville defense attorney who is familiar with the case, said Corey and her prosecutors are in a tough position.

“I know they’re good people and good lawyers,” he said. “But if a resolution short of trial doesn’t occur, this case is on a collision course to sending Cristian Fernandez to life in prison. That’s why this is one of those very difficult cases. It’s hard to understand what the appropriate measure is.”

Should child criminals with this sort of background be locked away from society for good? Or should they face a shorter sentence that includes rehabilitation? Would it be to late to “fix” people like Fernandez? Consider the similar case of death-row inmate Terrance Williams, another murderer who was horrifically victimized in his youth.

In fact, behind the image of Williams as a model student athlete was a childhood marred by horrific physical and sexual abuse that began from the time Williams was just 6 years old. Relentlessly beaten by his mother (herself a victim of abuse) and his alcoholic stepfather and gang-raped at a juvenile detention center when he was 16, by the time Williams killed Norwood he was regularly cutting himself, abusing drugs and alcohol, and had endured more than a decade of abuse.

Both the man’s victims were former abusers who no doubt pushed him further over the edge. This doesn’t justify murdering them in cold blood, but it should make us wonder if such cases merit special consideration. Do the traumatizing and mentally scarring experiences of people like Fernandez and Williams mitigate their resoonsibility? What would be an appropriate course of action that would be both fair and practical for the sake of public safety?

Evil

Each execution occurred in the Ukraine during World War II.

In tragic and horrific circumstances like this, most of us naturally wonder what its like to be the victims – in this case the woman, her child, and the man. But what about their killers? Why did they do this? How did they rationalize these horrible deeds? Did they even try? What’s it like to be a coldblooded murderer? Understanding that kind of evil is arguably just as scary as knowing the terror of it first hand.

I could find hundreds of pictures like these all over the web. The capacity for human beings to be so senseless evil, yet to remarkably virtuous, will always haunt and perplex me. I hope never to know the darker side of my nature.

Pity for Evil

But who prays for Satan? Who in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most, our one fellow and brother who most needed a friend yet had not a single one, the one sinner among us all who had the highest and clearest right to every Christian’s daily and nightly prayers, for the plain and unassailable reason that his was the first and greatest need, he being among sinners the supremest?
– Mark Twain’s Autobiography.

Some of the most tragic biographies I’ve ever read are those of criminals and tyrants. Sometimes, the perpetrators of evil deserve as much sympathy as their victims.

I used to a social experiment in which I’d tell people the story of a nameless figure who often times abused, mistreated, sickly, and in constant suffering throughout their early lives. My listeners would react with sympathy until they found out that such a figure turned out to be Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin.

This isn’t to say these men weren’t monsters. I’m not apologizing for the tremendous horror and agony they wrought upon the world. I’m merely contemplating what sort of factors lead some individuals to become senselessly evil on that level (or any level, for that matter). Evil doesn’t emerge in a vacuum. What sort of things corrupt people in this way?

Usually, the evil-minded are either the product of lifelong trauma – such as poverty, abuse, social oppression, and lack of familial support – or the consequence of genetic and psychological factors that are beyond their control (think of psychopaths).

This leads me to wonder how different history would be if Hitler or Stalin were born into loving families within stable societies, without any mental problems. How many criminals would have been upstanding members of society was it not for an accident of birth placing them in awful conditions.

Indeed, evil actions are rarely intentional in the way most people imagine. That is to say, no one ever believes that what they do is wrong. Humans have a way of rationalizing or self-justifying every action, regardless of how clearly heinous it may seem to everyone else

Some people grew up in a world that was always cruel, so why not behave accordingly? Others never had a chance to understand certain moral and ethical concepts, so how are they to know right from wrong? And many have poorly understood behavioral problems that they cannot help.

In any case, evil for its own sake is a myth, and the few individuals who have ever claimed to do bad things for no good reason are mentally abnormal to begin with.

I sometimes ponder how would’ve turned out if I was born and raised in more negative circumstances. What if I was regularly abused? What if I never knew love, or never received moral and ethical guidance? What if all I ever experienced was hardship, hatred, and apathy? What if I was born with the same neurological abnormalities that lead some people to lack empathy or self-control? Would I have ended up as the person I am now?

It’s highly doubtful; although that’s not to say everyone who experiences these things is guaranteed to be immoral and dysfunctional. We have no choice but to work with the cards we are dealt. We’re mostly shaped by forces beyond our control – the culture, society, time period, and socioeconomic level we are born and raised into at random. All we can do is adapt, and even then, some people are better equipped psychosocially than others.

This leads me to wonder: to what degree can we blame immoral people for their actions? If they never had anyone to guide them properly, or were born with a biologically embedded inability to reason or feel, are they really at fault for what they turn out to be? If their minds were warped by deterministic influences, can they really be said to have any control over their fate?

If so, to what extent – what’s the subsequent solution to the problem of evil, and how do we treat the delinquents of our society? Regardless of evil’s origins, or what solutions (if any) there may be to address it, I think we can agree that the greatest tragedy of evil is that exists in the first place, and that otherwise decent people fall into it for any number of reasons. Will it always be a scourge of the human condition forever? Is it an intractable part of human nature, if there is such a thing.

As always, thoughts and suggestions are welcomed.


Addressing Evil

Many people who do bad things, from petty crime to serial killing, are found to have neurological and biological dispositions for their immorality – in others words, they can’t help it. Can we truly call such people evil? Surely, their actions and intentions are evil. But are they themselves evil, given that they are innately incapable of feeling empathy or telling right from wrong (albeit to varying degrees)?

What are the implications for our legal and criminal justice system? Compared to other countries, we incarcerate far more people per capita, but also institutionalize far fewer than the average. Does this mean most people we imprison should be receiving psychiatric treatment rather than punishment? Determining who merits which approach certainly won’t be easy, nor will changing entrenched socio-cultural attitudes towards criminality and delinquency (especially towards the more serious moral transgressions).

But the criminal justice system has come a long way, so a gradual paradigm shift is not inconceivable, though it’ll certainly take generations – and more widespread scientific and ethical literacy.