The Sad Inevitability of Discussion on Belgium

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If sensible people don’t have a sensible discussion, stupid people will have a stupid one.

The conversations and stories after these all-too-common terrorism attacks are also all too common. They’re chillingly similar to the conversations that follow school shootings in America. On the one hand you have people so deep in denial they could be extras in The Mummy. On the other you have people simplistically blaming.

When it comes to the problem of Islamic terrorism, what follows these events is just as tiresomely predictable. On the one hand you have people deep in denial that Islam is part of the problem, who will not even countenance that the ideology entangled with Islam be part of the discussion and who blame everything on the west in an orgy of self-flagellation. On the other you often do have the kind of paranoid ‘white supremacy’ lunatics and racists who latch on to what isn’t a race issue (Islam being a religion and ideology adhered to by many races).

The Regressive Left will not allow a remotely nuanced or wholly inclusive discussion of the problem, because the problem includes Islam and like their opposite numbers on the far right they mysteriously see that as a racial issue, when it’s an ideological and religious one.

Unfortunately, the chilling effect of the spurious accusations of racism etc means that sensible, intelligent, nuanced people are rendered virtually unable to discuss the issue. Either because they daren’t – having seen what happens to others who do – or because they become so entangled in defending their reputation against people who will not listen, that they can’t progress the conversation.

Even calm, collected and ruthlessly rational people like Sam Harris get ‘greenwalded’ to death. Even former Islamists like Majid Nawaz get the most racist insults (porch monkey) for making more measured and complete arguments for Islamic reform and addressing the fact that the religious ideology is part of the issue.

Because the left is rendered incapable of having this discussion, that means the discussion happens on the right instead. Most especially within those circles on the far right where accusations of racism – spurious or accurate – have no meaningful impact and can’t or won’t silence people.

By not having the difficult, realistic, complete discussions we are ceding the discussion, and power, and popularity, to the right. Much of it to the far right. To the kind of paranoid lunatics who espouse ‘white genocide’ and similar conspiracy nonsense. The ones who are made credible when governments apply pressure to censor Facebook, when the police daren’t arrest rape gangs out of fear of accusations, when the news media isn’t replicating what people are reporting on the ground, then we’ve lost the argument and we lose people to the worst and most extreme elements – and we lose more and more of them.

To fixate on Islam and exclude the other factors is incomplete, but this is true the other way around as well. It has to be acknowledged that Islam is an unreformed religion with a tendency to be interpreted in absolutist and uncompromising terms. It needs a reformation, but that needs to come from within, via people like Nawaz and via more liberal interpretations of Islam as found in the smaller sects and culturally amongst people like the Kurds. The Kurds, rather than the house of Saud, is who should get Western support – they and people like them have a, frankly, more civilised interpretation of Islam that could be the vital seed for a greater reformation.

War will not solve this problem, nor will paranoiac security concerns, but in the short term these may be needed things – applied properly without overreach (which is not an easy thing to do). We won’t solve the problem by ignoring the issues people have around immigration, or treating them as stupid. We won’t solve the problem by conflating economic migrants and refugees, we’ll just help continue to demonise the second. We won’t solve the problem by failing to encourage integration, by creating (or allowing) ghettos or not encouraging or expecting people to integrate and adapt to the values of their new home.

The left, my left, seems unable to cope with Islam. Here is a religious ideology that massively and overwhelmingly counter to everything the liberal left supposedly stands for. It is elitist, repressive, genuinely patriarchal and misogynistic, violently homophobic. Everything we are supposed to be against, yet – apparently – because it’s a religious minority (in the west), largely followed by people who happen to have brown skins it is somehow beyond reproach.

People of any colour are capable of hideous deeds. Ideologies and religions frequently encourage or excuse the worst depths of poor human behaviour. We do not see the same reticence to criticise or attack other bigoted ideologies such as (genuine) neo-Nazism and the double standard on this issue is blatant.

We simply cannot afford to have these conversations only happening on the right and the far right. It’s alienating people. It’s undermining the left. It’s making us look like hypocrites.

The hard conversations need to be had.

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The Problem is Islam, so now what?

Fair question, if not asked sincerely.

Islam isn’t the only problem of course, but it is a huge problem and it’s irrational denialism to pretend it doesn’t have an effect. While statistics differ – many have been manipulated – the NCTC reported in 2012 that around 70% of all terrorist murders worldwide and 95% of suicide bombings were traced to Islam (specifically Sunni Islam).

It’s important to note, even though it’s obvious, that not all Muslims are terrorists and not all terrorists are Muslim, but it’s also important to acknowledge that Islam has a particular and unique problem (in the modern age) with terrorism, and to try and work out why – as well as finding ways to address it.

It’s also important to address the typical arguments that are made about foreign policy, colonialism in the past, American, Russian and European intervention in the Middle East and so on. These are all contributory factors certainly, however unfair it is to hold people today accountable for the actions of their ancestors.

The wars have been illegal and destructive, but differ ethically from terrorism considerably. Military action, at least in limited wars, does not target the civilian populace – even if it inevitably fails to avoid collateral damage – while firing hundreds of rounds into innocent civilians at a concert is a deliberate, vicious not an accident or byproduct. Whether you believe the claimed motivation or not, intervention in civil wars etc can also be interpreted as peacekeeping or an attempt to limit harm or blunt extremism – not a bad thing and something which has, albeit rarely, been somewhat successful (the former Yugoslavia being, perhaps, the best test case).

The situational aspects are not unique to the Middle East, they are found in other areas of the world and contribute to wars, civil disruption and even terrorism there – but not to the extent found in relation to the Islamic world and much more rarely reaching civilian populations in the west or outside the zone of contention.

Terrorism and grievances are not unique to Islam, but the extent and viciousness of it, the ubiquity of it, is.

So why? What is it about Islam that’s so unique and different? Why does it have a particular problem?

Literalism

Biblical literalists are a fringe of radicals when it comes to Christianity. Judaism has long traditions of secularism, liberal interpretations and ‘hedges’ around the rules set down in its holy text. Islam, by comparison, is incredibly literalist and prescriptive. While it contains many contradictions – as all the major religious texts do – it is much less ambiguous when it does give its orders, especially when you take the Hadith into account. The Koran is Islam, Islam is the Koran and if you’re raised to believe it is the absolute truth and it tells you to do something (or you’re told by a scholar that it does), what choice do you have if you call yourself a Muslim?

Extremism is the Norm

When we, in the west, talk of ‘Moderate Muslims’ we’re not actually talking about moderates. We’re talking about the extreme, radical, liberal left of Islam. They sound moderate, reasonable and centrist to us, but in the context of Islam they’re radically liberal. The Pew survey on Muslim attitudes provides a snapshot that really brings home that degree of extremism to us.

The percentage in favour of Sharia Law varies from 8-99%.

Even within (southern) Europe, you’ll find nearly 20% approval for this brutally medievalist religio-legal code, and there, 36% believe that code should be applied to non-Muslims. A minority, but a very significant one.

In every area a large majority are against prostitution, homosexuality, suicide, sex before marriage, drinking, abortion and euthanasia. It’s like stepping back into the 1950s – or more, and it’s multigenerational with succeeding generations of immigrants going one of two ways – westernising, or backlashing against it to a position more extreme than their parents.

Even in Europe 12% believe the veil should be enforced and nearly half believe a woman must be subservient to men.

20% of British Muslims sympathised with the 7/7 bombers and 27% with violence against cartoonists.

There’s a risk of labouring the point, but the statistics are out there. The point is simply that extreme viewpoints are relatively common and even the ‘moderate’ space is often anti-semitic, homophobic, misogynistic and authoritarian – enforcing these through cultural and religious license – and exhortation – for violence.

Dar Al-Islam

‘Christendom’ was an identity that used to carry currency and many nations used to have a common identity as Christian, specifically Catholic. Losing that was a great boon to western civilisation and a big boost to freedom and progress, but common identity does bring power and unity. Islam still has this identity, despite its sectarianism and internal schisms and rivalries between governments, there’s a common identity and unity. An attack or affront to one Muslim state or group is often taken as an attack on all – at least on the level of the individual, with the exception of Shia and other sects, who are regarded by groups like ISIS as just another enemy.

The point being that there’s a ‘greater’ identity at work than nation, race or even humanity which enables stark identification of in and out groups and dehumanisation of the other.

Theocracy

Islam has no central authority per se, rather competing ‘scholars’ and interpretations, but it does have the Koran. Virtually every sect and ‘scholar’ will point to the Koran first and the Koran is a starkly inhuman, genuinely misogynistic (the word has been overused and lost its power to shock) and violent.

Sources abound on the violent verses, the legal frameworks, the commands. Islam is not just a religion, it is a system of governance and law, a societal blueprint. This is something many western amateur analysts and apologists fail to understand. Islam ‘isn’t like other girls’, it plays out differently and it is set dead against the very idea or concept of separation of church and state, of secularism.

Religion comes first, always.

Non-Rational Actors

Religious actors are not rational actors. America has its own problem with the faithful, but they are still largely limited to the extremes, a minority of loons – whatever the pantomime politicians may put on. Religion is even less of an issue in Europe, to the point where it was considered shocking that Tony Blair was religious, and publicly so.

We live in nations where religion takes a back seat, is a private matter. Even ideological faith, for all the problem fascism and communism have caused in the past and for all the problems pseudo-progressivism and radical racist and sexist ideas are causing in culture and education, is still not in control. Most people are still rational actors. The Cold War would have been armageddon without rational actors and ideological extremism was fortunately blunted by more pragmatic bureaucracy by the dawn of the ICBM. Even China is simply another ordered bureaucracy, whatever its ideological trimmings.

There are very few non-rational actors in international politics these days and they’re very hard for rationally acting states to deal with. North Korea is one, Islam is another. You see this on a geo-political level, ISIS is a nation-scale suicide bomb placing ideology and faith over all practical concerns and you see this on a personal level with many terrorists being second or third generation immigrants to the west, who have enjoyed all the trappings of technological, consumer, liberal culture and have rejected it for guns, bombs and a return to medieval values.

Lack of Reform

Islam is – in religious terms – relatively new, at about six centuries of age. While the Koran has changed (at least three times) despite protestations in the religion to the contrary, it has remained broadly the same. It remains a brutal, medievalist text and proud of it, held up as perfect despite its inevitable flaws. Considered to be the last revelation.

The Old Testament was blunted by the more peaceful New Testament. Judaism was blunted by centuries of persecution, genocide and diaspora. Most religions have been blunted from their extremism by the march of progress. Secularism, scientific advancement, the relentlessly, objectively more human-friendly concepts of The Enlightenment.

Islam has no such reform and thus far every attempt to instil a kinder, gentler Islam has met with disaster. It’s still desperately needed, but the ideas that might form such a reformed, peaceful, tolerant and accepting Islam are limited to the deep past (before the influence of Imam Al-Ghazali) or to the fringes of western, liberalised Muslims who will not be listened to.

Summary

Islam is a brutal, extreme, medievalist, literalist doctrine whose only central authority is the Koran itself which cannot be persuaded to change its mind. There is no figure like a Pope who might be persuaded to liberalise and who would be followed in so doing. There has been no reformation, no theological uprising or liberalisation of the likes of Martin Luther – there being nobody to rebel against. The faith has a strong, unifying identity and is not just a religion but a sociopolitical and economic system that extends its tendrils into every aspect of life.

So what is to be done?

Dealing with Islam seems insurmountable, but if we are to blunt extremism and decrease terrorism, if this ‘clash of civilisations’ is to come to an end before the oil does it is Islam that needs to be dealt with as much, if not more than the geopolitical situation. Not least of all because we live amongst and alongside people of the faith.

So how have we dealt with these problems in the past? What has worked to blunt and moderate religions in the past?

Wealth & Comfort

It can seem strange, but religious belief is often strongest amongst people in the worst conditions. People who are on or below the poverty line are proportionally more religious than those in the middle and upper classes. It seems that poverty and hardship lead to people turning to religion as a comfort, even though – presumably – god put them in that position in the first place. Improved living standards tend to blunt religious fervour and soften religious devotion and views. A rising tide lifts all ships, and sinks all gods, you might say.

This doesn’t seem to be so true of Islam. A large number of terrorists have been raised in the comfort and relative ease of Western civilisation and have turned their back on it. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised, we find the same in plenty of college students turning to ideologies of rejection and the rise in ‘white guilt’ and self-blaming and flagellating in western nations, but reading Marx and having a sit-in in a library and blowing yourself up outside a football stadium are still radically different degrees of extremity. Wealth and comfort may play a role, but a less effective one. It is true that the situation for many, even in very wealthy Islamic nations, is not one of comfort and security under kleptocratic regimes and then there’s those in states of civil war and disruption. Encouraging liberalisation and secularism may help, but the Arab Spring has come to little and has empowered and emboldened religious radicals, not disarmed them.

Education, Science & Reason

The spread of education and literacy played an enormous role in the west in the liberation of theology from the church and the undermining and subdivision of that religion (Christianity). Science and the power of reason have, similarly, undermined and – in many nations – all but destroyed religious ideas by proving the central contentions of those religions wrong. Even in Catholicism they have – belatedly – forced a more liberal interpretation and the acceptance of scientific reality. You will still find creationists, but in much of the world – bar America – they have the same sort of intellectual status as flat earthers, people to be scorned and pitied. They have virtually no societal currency or legitimacy.

In Islam these sorts of ideas still have social currency. Even into the 90s there were Imams declaring the Earth to be flat and that belief in a spherical Earth was a form of atheism and apostasy! Islamic apologists who try to claim the Koran as scientific and truthful, such as the unaccountably popular Zakir Naik, are found everywhere and creationism seems to be a much more mainstream idea with a hold over the general populace of the religion.

Again, as with the wealth and comfort issue, these things don’t seem to have so much of an effect when it comes to Islam. Many suicide bombers and terrorists have been educated people like doctors and engineers. Not school drop outs or the kind of unintelligent people you would think would involve themselves in such an unsophisticated or brutal theology. There may be some effect, but it doesn’t seem like it would necessarily be as strong when it comes to Islam. Then again, Christianity has its examples – such as presidential candidate Ben Carson – of otherwise proficient, educated and intelligent people who still harbour bonkers beliefs.

Secularism

Secularism, the separation of Church and State, has been a massively progressive achievement in the West and elsewhere. It has allowed people of different faiths and cultures to live alongside by separating the role of the state from the enforcement and advocacy of religion or cultural values (logical, pragmatic and scientific values transcend culture, they work no matter what you believe). Even in cultures which still ostensibly have state religions – such as Britain – secularism has been the practical and realistic default through centuries of reform of the power of the Church and its representative – the Monarchy.

Secularism has had some success when it comes to Islam. Turkey’s secularisation made it a site of hope for the rest of the Islamic world to follow suit, but that secularism has been eroded, Turkey has slipped back towards authoritarianism and towards dogmatic religious behaviour.

While secularism can help, it cannot succeed if it is imposed on an unwilling populace. Islam is not ‘just’ a religion, as has been mentioned before, and it specifically demands a theocratic state and legal system. It is against the religion itself to accept authority other than god and the Koran. This being a given, it’s unlikely that secularist movements can gain too much purchase on Islamic nations (there are exceptions) and given that even Stalin’s ruthless methods couldn’t eliminate Orthodox Christianity and he had to come to an accord with it, there’s little chance of forcing secularism even if we wanted to.

Bomb them into Submission

This never works, short of absolute genocide (which, hopefully, nobody is advocating. Furthermore this is what ISIS and their ilk want. They want an apocalypse. They want the end of the world. They want to fight and to die to fulfil prophecy and even ignoring the religious angle, visiting atrocities on the Arab world will only bring them more recruits.

No matter how careful you are, there is always collateral damage. Smart bombs and missiles are only so smart. Intelligence data can be wrong and no matter what you do, drone strikes and assassinations – while more civilised and cleaner than firing AK47s into crowds of teenagers – will always be spun as worse, even by those ordering them.

This is a non starter and only an idiot would advocate it in anything more than the very short term.

Conclusion

There’s no easy solution to the problem of Islam. While the things that have historically worked to liberalise and moderate religious fervour in the past may have some effect it is blunted by the unique nature of Islam as a religion, yet we ignore the religious aspect at our peril. It is a major driving force behind the terrorism and the violence, so much as people want to ignore that and to blame western governments and actions for it. Even were we to pull out of everywhere right now and cease interference and involvement, the same would not be true of the Chinese or the Russians and we would still be targeted in any case, not to mention that the ongoing conflicts and insurrections would become immeasurably worse.

The only solution will be a liberal vision and version of Islam emerging from within Islam itself but, given the literalist nature of the faith and its violent prescriptions against blasphemy and apostasy, any such effort has a huge uphill climb to make. One of the very few things we might be able to do here in the west is to encourage more integration and less ghettoisation. To make people part of our communities and to discourage insular communities such as have emerged in Leeds, Bradford and parts of London here in the UK. This would mean distributing refugees and asylum seekers more equitably around our nations and creating a broader range of affordable housing – something which would benefit ‘natives’ as well.

Realistically I don’t see any of these measures being employed. The cynic in me suggests that once the oil runs out and the Middle East loses its geopolitical relevance, things will calm down. Provided nobody has nuked anyone by then. I want to believe that we can turn things around non-violently, before then, but the odds seem to stacked against it. Between the innate fanaticism and extremism of Islam and the absence of cultural confidence and will in the west (to do anything, let alone the right thing) the possibility seems remote.

Was Timothy McVeigh an Atheist?

Timothy Mcveigh - BRESCOLAFor you young ‘uns, Timothy McVeigh was the Oklahoma City bomber. Prior to 9/11 this (and the Waco siege) dominated discussions about terrorism, conspiracy theory and so forth in the United States. If you want to know what happened you can read up here. The short version is that a very disturbed, right-wing, nutcase detonated a huge bomb next to a federal building as a sort of ‘first blow’ in a war on ‘socialism’ and the government. Keep in mind that the rhetoric surrounding Obama has been much worse and yet nothing similar seems to have happened, yet.

These kinds of things go in cycles and, of late, much seems to be being made of Timothy McVeigh’s supposed atheism. When you bring up religious bombings, incidents and acts of terror someone inevitably points to McVeigh as an example of atheist terror. Even if one were to accept this characterisation, having to go all the way back to 1995 would show that ‘atheist’ murders and acts of terror occur with a great deal less frequency than religious ones. Still, we don’t have to accept this.

First and foremost, atheism is not a religion, an ideology, a philosophy, a system of belief or anything similar. It is the singular lack of belief in god/s. That is atheism in its entirety. If someone who happens to be an atheist commits some travesty it cannot be atheism that motivates them because atheism provides no motivation, no excuse, no impetus to commit such acts. Religious and ideological texts on the other hand, may very well have such exhortations to violence. The Abrahamic religious texts are replete with examples of this.

Secondly, McVeigh was not an atheist. At least not at the time of the bombings.

McVeigh was raised a Roman Catholic Christian and was confirmed in 1985. He was a registered republican, a member of the NRA and voted Libertarian. The bombings took place in 1995 and prior to the bombing his ‘goodbye’ letter to his childhood friend contained the following line:

I know in my heart that I am right in my struggle, Steve. I have come to peace with myself, my God and my cause. Blood will flow in the streets, Steve. Good vs. Evil. Free Men vs. Socialist Wannabe Slaves. Pray it is not your blood, my friend.

In 1996, after the bombing, when he was interviewed and asked about his religious position he said that he still believed in god, though he had lost touch with his Catholicism. He said he still maintained core Catholic, Christian beliefs.

By 2001 he proclaimed that he did not believe in hell and that ‘Science is my god’.

This is the line that people quote but it is one that is attributed to him a full six years after the bombing. It is unusual that he seems to have had a deconversion in prison. Many people claim religious conversion, especially in American prisons, because it gets them better treatment and increases their chances of parole. Being on death row perhaps McVeigh was feeling more fatalistic or didn’t see the need to claim a faith as it would make no difference. He did resist a great deal of urging to become a Muslim during this time.

When it came time for him to be executed McVeigh seems to have rediscovered his religion. A day before he wrote to a paper describing himself as agnostic. On the day of his execution he took the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and read the poem Invictus, which contains references to god and souls.

We’ll likely never really know what he thought or felt or believed, because he is dead. This is part of the waste and uselessness of the death penalty, it eliminates our capacity to learn and to understand. Nonetheless he seems to have been raised and died a Christian and to have been one when the bombing took place.

The truly perverse thing is that, having taken the Sacrament and ‘returned to the bosom of the lord’, by Christian doctrine, this mass murderer and right-wing terrorist would be in heaven, if such a place existed.

 

Can we Blame Islam for Boston?

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It’s been a weird few days, hasn’t it?

Every time a new atrocity occurs it acts as a stark reminder about just how rapidly the news and media landscape is changing. On 9/11 we were watching streaming video in the office (the only place with a fast enough connection) and helping people check on friends and relatives by connecting over IM and IRC.

Madrid and the 7/7 bombings in London were transformed by the prevalence of cellphone video and images and places like Moblog became hugely important in working out what was going on and seeing what was occurring.

Now in 2013 – which always seemed like the distant future to me growing up – we have an atrocity at a marathon caught on multiple (civilian!) cameras from multiple angles, online vigilantes and the news media being totally outstripped by Twitter, Facebook and so on despite throwing aside their advantage (authority and objectivity) in a desperate attempt to keep up with the pace.

Speculation early on was, of course, about the brown faces in the crowd and that could have potentially gotten very dangerous. In a bizarre twist however, it turned out that the bombers were, quite literally Caucasian. It did, of course, also turn out that they were Muslim but I’m sure the concept of a white Muslim has someone like Ann Coulter’s head exploding in incomprehension.

There’s a couple of things I found particularly interesting and timely in the speculation we saw going on, things I hadn’t seen before.

  1. Some people were trying to pin the blame for the bombing on atheists, rather than religious or political fanaticism.
  2. Only very recently Harris, Dawkins etc have been coming under fire under the presumption that questioning Islam is racism.

Number 1 is interesting in that it shows that the rise of atheism (or more accurately the decline of theism) has some people spooked and many of them don’t know what atheism actually is.

Number two is a godsend (ha, ha) for those of us repeatedly making the point that having a problem with Islam is a matter of the religion and what it says, encourages and inspires. It’s not having a problem with Arabs, Pakistanis or whatever other ethnicities are most strongly linked with Islam. Here we have the perfect example to counter that argument. Two white Islamic terrorists.

Is it fair to blame Islam?

Yes, I think it is. The older brother at least seems to have been pious and increasingly militant and while the younger brother was a drinker he seems to have been caught in his brother’s shadow and tugged along by the weight of his growing fanaticism. Various excuses are already being made to try and distance the brother’s actions from their religion and amongst these is the suggestion of ‘white privilege’ that white mass murderers and terrorists, like, say Tim McVeigh, are not seen as part of a movement as a problem, but as individuals.

That is not entirely true. American gun culture, right wing paranoia, conspiracy theory, distrust of government and fanatically extreme individualism and Christianity have played a big role in a lot of American domestic terrorism and massacres and quite rightly this toxic mix should be held to blame for inspiring those individuals. It is much less of a unified belief system and set of grudges than Islamic fundamentalists have  but it is there. Of course there are also violent individuals, sometimes working together as in Columbine, perhaps the event that most closely mirrors Boston in many ways. Those events are individual though, they are not unified by anything more than disaffection, mental illness and isolation.

Moderate Muslims will say that the religion does not condone the killing of civilians or excuse violence and they are to be applauded for exercising their own personal morality to reject the morality present in the Koran, but the fact remains that it is full of passages that speak to violence, particularly against non-believers and that it has inspired much of the terrible violence in this century in the same way political ideology did in the 20th (both are articles of faith).

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…difference

It is not racist to criticise and to honestly examine Islam any more than it is to criticise and honestly examine Christianity. One seems to be inspiring violence on a global level and even on the Christian side of the aisle one sees ‘Crusader’ rhetoric in the war against terror and a similar level of extremism leading to attacks on abortion doctors.

Faith provides the capacity for a level of fanaticism in religion (and ideology) that makes appalling actions seem justified, excusable, even correct. It is worth taking a stand against that way of thinking, both in Islam and more generally.

I Knew the Discovery Channel Shooter

james-lee-and-signI’ve always been worried by crazies and fanatics. What really cemented for me that we should oppose and speak up against these kinds of ideas was my experience with James Lee, known as the Discovery Channel Shooter (even though he didn’t shoot anyone).

James was very active on tribe.net as was I for some time, some years ago. Primarily I was involved in the political and skeptical tribes but despite the presence of people like me, tribe.net was always pretty overrun with conspiracy theorists, religious nutters and other people deeply entrenched in ‘woo’.

James didn’t particularly stand out from the other crazies at the time but, looking back, I can see some warning signs that separated him from the other kooks and nutballs on the site. Things that might help others differentiate the genuinely dangerous or at-risk from the trolls, Poes and harmless crazies.

I often wish I’d put more effort into getting through to him, into debunking the nonsense he and others spread there. I see it now, still, all across social media and bullshit spreads much faster than truth or sober thinking. It’s made me treat so many different peculiarities and crazy ideas much more seriously – at least in terms of the harm they can do.

Here’s what – from memory – separated James from the others:

  1. James’ obsession was singular. While his concerns were environmentalist and extreme the object of his obsession was the Discovery Channel. This made little sense to anyone who talked to him. They weren’t ‘evil’ in his mindset, the problem that he had was that they weren’t doing enough to tackle and promote environmental concerns. He became utterly fixated on them to the exclusion of all others.
  2. James took his actions into ‘real life’. James wasn’t just a ranting voice on the internet. He tried to organise other people and got more desperate when nobody really followed his lead – despite having his believers and enablers on tribe.net and elsewhere. He picketed their building, he made the transition from shouting and ranting online (everywhere he could) to ‘doing something’.
  3. James wouldn’t engage. Anything beyond his obsession didn’t seem to exist for him. We would ignore feedback that went beyond the bounds of his beef with Discovery Channel and would angrily and emotionally react to anyone not in agreement with him on that singular focus. He did, however, pay attention to positive feedback which he did get from other crazy – if less crazy – people and peacemakers.

I don’t think we can afford to ignore or tease people like this online. I think they must be confronted with dissenting views and, if necessary, reported and dealt with legally or psychologically as happened with Dave Mabus. Their obsessions and peculiarities are amusing only so long as they don’t tip over the edge and encouraging or enabling them can do just that.

There aren’t ‘two sides’ of equal worth to every story and as skeptics we need to publicly oppose and debunk everything from homeopathy and anti-vax nonsense to religion and 9/11 conspiracies. They’re literally and figuratively poisoning political and social discussion and advancement and they’re leading to tragedies like James Lee.

His actions have been branded those of a terrorist. He was mentally ill. He needed help, he needed to be taken seriously, he needed someone to talk sense and get through to him. He didn’t deserve to be shot.