Saturday, June 14, 2014

Thoughts on Bergdahl: Yes, One Man Is Worth It

As an admitted student of Machiavelli, I fully understand that most of the time, life presents humanity with impossible decisions. Would that there is always a clear "right" or "wrong" answer for every situation, but as the Joker says in The Dark Knight, "[people] are only as good as the world allows them to be." Given the infinite combinations of no-win situations humans are faced with on a daily basis, it's little wonder that many of us abandon the notion of the ideal for the more practical application of sound decision-making of the "Greater Good."

Lately, the media circus has focused on one particular no-win situation, that of U.S. Army Sgt. Bergdahl who was recently released from 5 years of Al-Qaeda captivity. It would be nice if we could simply sit back in joy and relief that one of our own has been saved from the enemy, but as life would have it, nothing is ever quite that simple.

Did Bergdahl desert his post? Was he just taking a leisurely stroll while on watch (which would still amount to abandoning his post)? I don't have the answers to these questions, and until an investigation is completed, neither will anyone else. Legally, we have to figure out whether or not President Obama violated the law by not notifying Congress prior to Bergdahl's release. We have to determine whether there truly were safety concerns and extenuating circumstance that warranted a different approach. For that, we won't have the answers until an investigation is completed by Congress.

Important questions that need to be answered, but for me the more pressing issue involves America's very soul: was it worth saving one man for the risk of endangering others and weakening America's opposition to global terrorism?

A lot of pundits have been vocal about why it is American policy is never to negotiate with terrorists. A lot of Republicans have cried foul that by conducting a prisoner exchange--one that seems to heavily favor the enemy--America now appears weak to our enemies. To those men and women I ask this: do you really think that terrorists consider America to be strong in the first place? Are you truly all that concerned with how America is perceived by whack-jobs who are willing to strap bombs to their chests and blow up school buses full of children? Perhaps we should be more concerned with actually being strong than appearing to be strong.

Then some say, "this sets a dangerous precedent. Now Al-Qaeda will try harder to capture more Americans. They've already stated that they will try harder!" Here's another question: do you honestly think that before this incident, capturing an American was not a high priority on Al-Qaeda's to-do list? Taking hostages is a staple of terrorism, regardless of the organization or its cause. If Al-Qaeda truly had the capability to capture more Americans, they would have been doing that long before Bergdahl's release. The incentive to capturing Americans is creating a sense of terror, and that incentive remains. Prisoner exchange is not even really a bonus for them, because the ultimate goal is breaking our spirit.

So when I ask myself, "was one man worth it?" I answer: yes. Am I pleased about how everything unfolded? It probably could have been handled in a better way, but ultimately I'm glad that someone in our government stood up and said "yes, one man is worth it." Whether or not you agree with how Obama went about it, bringing Bergdahl home shows the terrorists that they have not won.

Their goal is to dehumanize us--to break our resolve and bring us down to their level of horror and inhumanity. Now, we have shown them--and the world--that America still has a soul and, to some degree, that we still believe that no one is ever truly expendable.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Why Religion Isn't as Good as You Thought

Because it's funny.
Question:  When was the last time we saw a group of scientists vow to kill each other because they believed in differing interpretations of a set of data?  Does anyone remember reading about the great war of "Did dinosaurs have feathers or not"?  And aren't we glad that scientists no longer enslave entire populations of non-believers for the purpose of forcing them to believe in dark matter?

Hopefully, all of that sounds completely absurd, because really, who would actually enslave an entire race of people just because they didn't believe in dark matter?  Forcing people to believe in something they can't see sounds asinine, and actually waging war against an entire group of people because they believe that dinosaurs actually had feathers sounds totally Alice (Alice in Wonderland--I'm trying to make a new catch-phrase).  Warriors for atomic theory!  We're doing the work of science: changing hearts souls, winning over minds for science!

By now, any reader should be able easily to see where I'm going with this.  Let's try asking these questions again but from a different perspective.

Question: When was the last time we saw a group of religious fanatics kill each other because they believed in different theological texts?  Does anyone remember reading about the Crusades?  And aren't we glad that Christians no longer enslave entire populations of non-believers for the purpose of forcing them to believe in Jesus Christ?

So much horror has been wrought in the name of God that I find it baffling that we, as a species, have not yet awakened from the nightmare that is religion.  Sure, religion has some benefits.  It gives people a sense of belonging and community.  It allows people to ponder infinity and that part of existence that we cannot perceive.  Religion helps many people find their cherity and compassion, people who otherwise may never have realized their potential for good.

I used to think that religion wasn't to blame for all of the bloodshed, but that people were to blame.  Unfortunately, I can no longer hold that belief because I understand that religion itself is an invention of man.

Why did man invent religion?  Well, because one day, some poor, random bastard--after having his home and his farm burned to the ground, his family murdered, and his entire life shattered--had the audacity to ask himself "what the hell is the point of this miserable existence?"  The man, broken hearted with no will left to live, resigned himself to end it all.  As he knelt in the ashes of what was once his joyful existence, the sharp blade pressed against his throat ready for one last slice, he stared into oblivion and became frightened.

He didn't go through with it because he asked himself an even more chilling question than his first:  "what if there is nothing after I die?"  Shaken to the core, he let the knife drop to the ground because the only thing more terrifying than all the horrors of this world is the prospect of becoming nothing.

As Karl marx once suggested, religion is an opiate.  It facilitates a sense of comfort by providing "answers" to the questions that have no discernable answers.  Why fear death when there is a promise of eternal life after shedding this mortal coil?  How can you feel alone or adrift when God loves you and gives you purpose in life?  And the best part about it is that no one can tell you that you're wrong, because no one can prove you wrong.

That is a perfect set-up when you think about it.  Consdering most people don't like to be wrong--and moreso, they don't like to be proven wrong by ideological opponents--believing in something that can never definitively be proven wrong is an ideal arrangement.

Religion is not so great because it is based on feelings and faith rather than logic and knowledge.  Think about it: the entirety of the scientific community agrees that the force known as "gravity" exists.  The scientific community agrees on a lot of concepts like photosynthesis, atomic energy, and plate tectonics.  But what does the religious community as a whole agree upon?

That God exists?  Nope (Buddhists).  That Jesus Christ is the savior of humanity?  Nope.  That Mohammed was a prophet and revealed the final testament of God?  No, again.  Or how about the idea that much of the Old Testament is not meant to be taken literally, because much of it is based in myths common to the Middle East?  No, Christians can't even agree on that.

When you believe in something without evidence, that is called faith.  When you believe in something because there is evidence supporting the existence of that thing, it is called knowledge.  A man of science can be arrogant and can appear to be "close minded," but that's because his beliefs are based on knowledge, evidence and study that has been conducted countless times.  If someone tells me that gravity is a load of hogwash, and I respond by telling him he's mad, that does not mean I have a closed mind.

Similarly, when someone tells me that he knows God exists, and I tell him that because of the limitations of human perception, we can only surmise that there is an equal chance of God not existing as there is a chance of God existing, that also does not make me close-minded.

People cling to religion because it provides them comfort.  Religion eases the burden of oblivion and self-purpose.  Religious people don't like science--and often ridicule men of science as arrogant know-it-alls--because science suggests that their beliefs are fictitious. 

When a religious person is challenged and becomes angry or upset, it is because he is afraid he may have to finally face the very real potential that there is only oblivion.  When a man of science is challenged and becomes angry or upset, it is because the challenger usually has no basis for his argument and cannot provide any evidence to support his claims other than "because a 2000 year old book tells me to believe it!"  Sure, to believe in science takes faith because not everyone has the time to run countless tests to prove theories, but when I watch a pebble fall from my hand, that's a hell of a convincing argument for gravity.

What can you tell me that God has actually done lately?