Editor’s note: On Tuesday, in a column that can be read here, Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges criticized Sam Harris as being a fundamentalist. We offered Harris, who was once a prominent contributor to this site, a chance to respond, and he has done so.
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After my first book was published, the journalist Chris Hedges seemed to make a career out of misrepresenting its contents—asserting, among other calumnies, that somewhere in its pages I call for an immediate, nuclear first strike on the entire Muslim world. Hedges spread this lie so sedulously that I could have spent years writing letters to the editor. Even if I had been willing to squander my time in this way, such letters are generally pointless, as few people read them. In the end, I decided to create a page on my website
addressing such controversies, so that I can then forget all about them. The result has been less than satisfying. Several years have passed, and I still meet people at public talks and in comment threads who believe that I support the outright murder of hundreds of millions of innocent people.
In an apparent attempt to become the most tedious person on Earth, Hedges has attacked me again on this point, and the editors at Truthdig have invited me to respond. I suppose it is worth a try. To begin, I’d like to simply cite the text that has been on my website for years, so that readers can appreciate just how unscrupulous and incorrigible Hedges is:
The journalist Chris Hedges has repeatedly claimed (in print, in public lectures, on the radio, and on television) that I advocate a nuclear first-strike on the Muslim world. His remarks, which have been recycled continuously in interviews and blog-posts, generally take the following form:
“I mean, Sam Harris, at the end of his first book, asks us to consider a nuclear first strike on the Arab world.” (Q&A at Harvard Divinity School, March 20, 2008)
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“Harris, echoing the blood lust of [Christopher] Hitchens, calls, in his book ‘The End of Faith,’ for a nuclear first strike against the Islamic world.” (“The Dangerous Atheism of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris,” AlterNet, March 22, 2008)
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“And you have in Sam Harris’ book, ‘The End of Faith,’ a call for us to consider a nuclear first strike against the Arab world. This isn’t rational. This is insane.” (“The Tavis Smiley Show,” April 15, 2008)
“Sam Harris, in his book ‘The End of Faith,’ asks us to consider carrying out a nuclear first-strike on the Arab world. That’s not a rational option—that’s insanity.” (“A Conversation with Chris Hedges,” Free Inquiry, August/September 2008)
Wherever they appear, Hedges’ comments seem calculated to leave the impression that I want the U.S. government to start killing Muslims by the millions. Below I present the only passage I have ever written on the subject of preventative nuclear war and the only passage that Hedges could be referring to in my work (“The End of Faith,” pages 128-129). I have taken the liberty of emphasizing some of the words that Hedges chose to ignore:
It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe. How would such an unconscionable act of self-defense be perceived by the rest of the Muslim world? It would likely be seen as the first incursion of a genocidal crusade. The horrible irony here is that seeing could make it so: this very perception could plunge us into a state of hot war with any Muslim state that had the capacity to pose a nuclear threat of its own. All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world’s population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher’s stone, and unicorns. That it would be a horrible absurdity for so many of us to die for the sake of myth does not mean, however, that it could not happen. Indeed, given the immunity to all reasonable intrusions that faith enjoys in our discourse, a catastrophe of this sort seems increasingly likely. We must come to terms with the possibility that men who are every bit as zealous to die as the nineteen hijackers may one day get their hands on long-range nuclear weaponry. The Muslim world in particular must anticipate this possibility and find some way to prevent it. Given the steady proliferation of technology, it is safe to say that time is not on our side.
I will let the reader judge whether this award-winning journalist has represented my views fairly.