Monthly Archives: July 2010

Symbolism and Emotion

A Facebook friend of mine brought to my attention two answers that Ayn Rand gave in her Q & A sessions that might be of use to us in this discussion of the planned mosque near Ground Zero. The relevant answers can be found in Robert Mayhew’s edited collection, Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q & A on pages 94 and 101.

On page 94, Rand is asked, “What do you think about the killing of innocent people in war?” In her answer, Rand explains that, in times of war, the aggressor is properly seen as “stepp[ing] outside the principle of rights.” The consequence of identifying a country as an aggressor nation, she says, is that the principle that prohibits the killing of innocent persons, no longer applies to the killing of civilians in the aggressor nation. She acknowledges that the majority of people living under the government of the aggressor nation may even be innocent, and yet still, “they must pay the price for the sins of their government.”

The trick with applying Rand’s reasoning to the present case is that we are dealing not with an aggressor nation, but with an aggressor religious organization. Yes, there are some nations that can be identified as synonymous with it — Iran for starters — but otherwise it is an organization with members living throughout the world, some active, some quite passive. Do all of the members of this organization give up their rights, such that, as some people have been asking, we would be justified in, e.g., bombing all mosques in the United States? I think there are some rights that Muslims give up simply by identifying themselves with an aggressor organization. But this would be minimal (e.g., being subjected to heightened scrutiny in certain contexts, even without particularized suspicion). However, more extreme measures would be called for — e.g., deporting or imprisoning large numbers of people, or closing down mosques en masse — only if doing so was necessary to eliminate the threat posed by this enemy, with minimal loss of life on our side. And, at least in my judgment, I don’t think it is.

What is clear, though, is that with respect to the “prime movers” within the aggressor organization, the concept of rights is simply inapplicable. I’ve done a little reading in the so-called “Just War Theory” literature, and I think the following definition of “combatant,” given by philosopher Jeffrie G. Murphy, may be helpful. A combatant, writes Murphy, is anyone “who may reasonably be regarded as engaged in an attempt to destroy you.” Of course people can be “engaged in an attempt to destroy you” even if they are not the ones performing the physical actions entailing the proximate cause of your destruction. Providing aid and comfort is enough. And, if you’ve been following this debate, you’ve likely been pointed to sources supporting a reasonable belief that those behind the planned mosque at Ground Zero are such people. (Ed Cline’s article at Rule of Reason is the most recent example.) Whether those who own or operate other mosques in the United States are such people, is a different question, one I am not attempting to answer here.

So, while Rand is (unfortunately for us, perhaps fortunately for her) not around today to weigh in on this issue, I believe she would have thought it fantastic to defend the property rights of those behind the planned mosque near Ground Zero. In fact, I’m starting to wonder whether she may even have quickly brushed aside the “rule of law” issue we’ve been discussing as well.

Which brings me to the point illustrated by Rand’s second answer: the importance of the image projected by America to the world, and the value of symbolism. On page 101 of the Q & A book, Rand was asked whether the U.S. should agree to sign a treaty to hand over control of the Panama Canal to Panama (Carter signed the treaty in 1977). Rand considered handing over the canal to be an “abysmal slap in the face to American achievement.” She said that, rather than “flatter the feelings or inferiority complex of South America,” we should “maintain our dignity, which we deserve.” She concluded by saying, “There’s no reason to give the Panama Canal away.” Note that, according to Objectivism, government should not be in the business of running and owning canals. And yet Rand thought, in the context, it was better to continue owning/operating the canal, than to be on the receiving end of a “slap in the face of American achievement.” Similarly, I think that, with respect to the planned mosque near Ground Zero, Rand would be very much concerned with what allowing it to be built would mean, how it would be perceived, both by our enemy, and by others around the world.

I don’t think one has to have a specialized grasp of Islam to appreciate most of the relevant meaning and symbolism here. Two towers, symbols of American freedom and productivity, were brought down by Jihadists on September 11, 2001. It was the worst, most horrific attack that has ever occurred on American soil. Muslims plan to build a mosque, which will preach the same religion that motivated those Jihadists, just a couple blocks away from the site of that attack. Moreover, they plan to open it on the 10th anniversary of that attack, at which time the Jihadists will no doubt still be at war with us. For more, including the significance of the name “Cordoba”, given to the organization behind the planned mosque, I refer you to an article by Raymond Ibrahim.

Ayn Rand thought that giving away the Panama Canal would be tantamount to an “abysmal slap in the face to American achievement,” and would rather have our country continue to own and operate the canal, than suffer such a loss of dignity. What do you think she would have thought of (a) 9/11, and (b) the idea of a mosque built near Ground Zero? Do you think she would have had any problem with bending, twisting, or distorting whatever invalid laws were available to stop the latter, if all proper avenues for doing so were taken off the table? I don’t.

Thank you , Facebook friend who pointed me to these passages.


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