Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thinking About Bomb Plots

Like other Corvallis residents, I was startled to read the headline in Saturday’s GT: “OSU student arrested in bomb plot.” Also like other Corvallis residents, I hope that people here and elsewhere will not jump to conclusions about Muslims in general from the fact that Mohamed Osman Mohamud styles himself a Muslim.

My personal experiences with Muslims have been positive. I remember with particular fondness one of my students at Adrian College who, although an American by birth, had grown up in Lebanon during the civil war there, and then returned to the U.S. with her parents. And over the years several Muslims were fine faculty colleagues in our college, which was founded by Methodists and is still affiliated with that church.

This said, I find it disturbing that even a few individuals of any faith can become so obsessed with political or religious abstractions that they take actions which are intentionally devastating to fellow human beings.

When I was a student at Willamette University in the 1950s, a political science professor told us that the only way Republicans could win Multnomah Country would be to shut down the Portland telephone system on election day. He thought that Republicans would probably vote anyhow, but Democrats needed to phone people who hadn’t voted and offer to drive them to the polling places.

Since I was a Republican back then I figured out two different ways to shut down the telephone system. I am afraid that one of them, however, was not very practical. It involved hijacking an atomic submarine from the U.S. Navy, running it up the Columbia to Portland, plugging the output from its reactor into the local phone network, and then revving the reactor up to full power and burning out all the telephone circuits.

The other approach, which I won’t disclose for fear someone might actually try it, would have been easy to do. But once I considered the side effects of shutting down the Portland phone network, the idea lost its charm for me, as I think it would for most people. It would have been nice to have the Republicans take Multnomah County. But what about people who couldn’t call the fire department about a house fire? Or those who couldn’t call an ambulance for a heart attack?

Defensible ethical generalizations are hard to come by, but I think there are two such generalizations that apply both to my own case and to Mohamed Osman Mohamud:

First, in a fully civilized world children must be brought up to think concretely about all of the consequences their actions will produce and to evaluate their actions in terms of the Golden Rule (which has analogies in many religions).

Second, no religion can be all good that tolerates any of its members bringing up children to hate people of other races, nationalities, or religions. Islam is not alone in suffering from this imperfection; it has Christian brethren.

Members of an Islamic peace group were handing out leaflets protesting terrorism to the crowd awaiting the Christmas tree lighting in Portland Friday. Ironically, if the bomb had worked, a number of Muslims would have been among the dead and injured, just as a number of Muslim workers were killed when the World Trade Center towers fell.

Clearly, the world is not yet fully civilized. We should avoid reacting to situations like that in Portland in ways that make it even less civilized.

1 comment:

  1. Good one. I'm still not convinced that a mildly progressive income tax is more unfair than a flat one (since the utility of income isn't exactly proportional to its size-- though I think I'd prefer a flat tax just because it avoids fights over exactly how progressive to make it), but you make good points here. Democracies continue to be used to enforce unequal rules.

    Property taxes aren't universally flat. We pay a lower rate to Somerville because our property is our primary residence. And the discount for living in our property is not a flat percentage-- in fact as far as I can tell it is a constant amount. So what amounted to something on the order of a 40% discount on our $--------- condo will be more like a 24% discount on our new $ [high priced] condo.


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