Early Thursday morning S.T. More (a provocative name, seeming to subtly signal St. Thomas More) asked an authentic question. S/he wondered about my take on self-radicalization. You can see the original exchange here.
Real questions are wonderful things. Generous, beautiful, sometimes magical. Certainly this question has been very good to me.
It prompted additional thinking and reading, especially Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind and some Aristotle.
Aristotle gave us a comparatively brief text now known as Categories. Here Aristotle works through how we can accurately compare and contrast, how we can express meaningful characteristics, how we can think more accurately. Aristotle compares the sharpness of music with that of a knife as an example of confusing substance for quality.
I was drawn to Ryle because of his ground-breaking work on category-mistakes, going well beyond Aristotle. It occurred to me that with McVeigh, Breivik, the Tsarnaev’s, and others — including several in positions of great authority — we can perceive a recurring pattern of category mistakes. It is a tendency that constantly challenges me. Anyone who is attracted to analogies will be regularly tempted to false analogies, often false because of some form of category-mistake.
Here is the note Dzhokhar Tsarnaev scrawled on the interior wall of the boat while hiding from search teams. Many of the unintelligible (UI) words are the result of bullets fired during his capture.
I’m jealous of my brother who ha[s] [re]ceived the reward of jannutul Firdaus (inshallah) before me. I do not mourn because his soul is very much alive. God has a plan for each person. Mine was to hide in this boat and shed some light on our actions. I ask Allah to make me a shahied (iA) to allow me to return to him and be among all the righteous people in the highest levels of heaven. He who Allah guides no one can misguide. A[llah Ak]bar!
The US Government is killing our innocent civilians but most of you already know that. As a [UI] I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished, we Muslims are one body, you hurt one you hurt us all. Well at least that’s how muhhammad (pbuh) wanted it to be [for]ever, the ummah is beginning to rise/[UI] has awoken the mujahideen, know you are fighting men who look into the barrel of your gun and see heaven, now how can you compete with that. We are promised victory and we will surely get it. Now I don’t like killing innocent people it is forbidden in Islam but due to said [UI] it is allowed. All credit goes [UI]. Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.
Where to begin…
Since this is just a blog, let’s try a simple exegesis:
Killing innocent people is evil
YOU are killing (“our”) innocent people
YOU must be punished, I will do so to deter YOU from further killing of innocent people. I will continue to punish YOU until YOU stop.
Fair enough? Coherent with the original text?
If so, in these expressions, what are the characteristics of YOU?
Certainly you is other than the writer. An anticipated reader? The police? Others? Others as in those who do not kill innocents? Well, give him credit, Dzhokhar recognizes he no longer belongs in the category of those who do not kill innocents. Others as in non-Muslims? Perhaps. But clearly he recognizes non-Muslims can be innocent. The text seems to be flailing about for some other category or set of categories.
In which category does the writer belong, innocent or evil? Within the claims of the text, apparently both. In which category does “you” belong? Again, apparently both. These are not yet useful categories.
This can — probably should — be continued. But not here.
Here I will merely contrast the confusing categories that challenged Mr. Tsarnaev with the clarity that informed decisions made at the Cologne Cathedral on Friday. The memorial service at the cathedral was for those who died in the March 24 plane crash. The memorial service was offered as a way to support those who had survived. All those fitting the category descriptions were included.
Categorical clarity is possible. There are several tools available to help. One of the first steps will often involve sweeping away the dark cloud of self-righteousness.