By Nelson Ascher
Let me be straightforward here. I'm an atheist and a secularist.
By atheist I mean that I take the possibility of there being any kind of transcendence, anything supernatural, anything that is not explainable or that won't be eventually be explainad by the laws of physics (which I don't pretend to understand fully) to be infinitesimally small. I'd really love it if there were something else besides what I can see, because what I can see if suffering, fear and crap. I'd like to think I'll meet my loved ones who disappeared into nothingness or, to put it even less metaphorically, have disintegrated, don't exist anymore, are not. It would be nice to imagine that I will outlast my mortal bodily being. But I can't. Maybe that's a failure of imagination. The trouble with atheism is the same as with learning to play the piano. To be able to play it well, you've got to learn it before you have time to fall in love with music. When you get to love music, it's usually too late for your fingers to learn the right movements. In the same way, one becomes an atheist before one learns what fear, finitude and mortality are.
As a secularist, I simply don't want other people's beliefs dictating my behavior. You don't want to eat pork? Fine, but leave me alone with my Spanish "jamon de jabugo" or "pata negra". You dislike spirits? OK. Even so I'll drink my cognac. Sex outside marriage is sinful for you? That's your trouble, not mine. Live and let me live.
When I became a conscious atheist (I think that was when, for the hundredth time, in spite of my prayers, God almighty didn't grant me the grades I needed at junior high school) I also started to militate. I couldn't admit anyone disbelieving in my disbelief. I thought: I'm so smart and they're so stupid. Eventually I came around to the conclusion that I couldn't be so smarter than almost everybody else: a bit maybe, but not that much. So, the conclusions I arrived at could also have been arrived at by most people, living, dead or still to be born. If they took another way, they must have had their own reasons for it. Probably much comes down to temperament, a disposition we're born with and cannot do much to change.
Then I discovered one could be both an unbeliever and a total idiot. For instance, during the 1982 Falkland's war my leftist friends, atheists to the last comrade, believed in earnest that Argentina could beat the UK. Well, Biblical miracles sound more plausible to me.
And what about secularism? All I can say is that I discovered a value that nowadays attracts me much more: tolerance. I'd rather live among tolerant believers than among intolerant secularists.
But I'm even worse than an atheist and a secularist. I know human life is cheap. How do I know it? You can contract the murder of almost anyone here in Brazil for less than U$ 1,000. And if you just happen to run with your car over somebody here, that won't even get you in jail. Ultimately, human life is worth as much as each of us think it's worth, as much as a collectivity, community and society think it does. And it is also that society that'll say more or less arbitrarily where or when a human life begins and ends. If most agree it does begin at conception, then forget about abortion and if they also think that whatever someone does, he/she is still entitled to live out the span of his natural life, than forget too about capital punishment. If the majority, in a democratic society, decide to the contrary, then neither abortion nor capital punishment will be seen as murder. These things change from time to time and from place to place.
I wouldn't ever forbid abortion (though it is still illegal in my left-wing governed country), but I think it is nasty, unpleasant and the people involved should have used some anti-conceptive method. And though I'm no enthusiast for hangings of executions in general, I wouldn't move a finger to save Adolph Eichmann's or Timothy McVeigh's unworthy lives. Actually, there were some well-deserved deaths that made me so happy that, as soon as I was informed of them, I opened a bottle of whatever I had at hand to celebrate. I toasted thus the deaths of Francisco Franco, Anastasio Somoza, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Nicolae Ceaucescu, sheik Ahmed Yassin etc. If this makes me a pervert, so be it.
I don't trust any kind of socialism and I dislike big government. Nevertheless, with so much food in the world I think it is disgusting to see people starving to death. I have no trouble with societies that opt for assuring even their poorest citizens a certain minimum: food, shelter, transport, education, health. Poverty is nasty.
I'm against all forms of censorship. Even Al Jazeera and the BBC must be allowed to broadcast. But only its voluntary viewers should voluntarily pay for this.
I know we're not born equal. Some are born with genes that will kill them before they reach their teens. Others will be born with such body forms that'll allow them to earn millions just walking along the cat-walk. It is unfair, but that's how it is. Equal luck is unenforceable, but equal rights are a dogma for me. And I couldn't care less for anybody's skin color, faith or lack thereof, good or bad looks (though my right to choose my girlfriends according to my aesthetic specifications I hold to be unalienable).
I could go on and on, but my point is: am I a left or a right-winger, a liberal or a conservative? I don't know. I'm, however, deeply pessimistic about human nature and somewhat optimistic about human resilience and resourcefulness.
And one thing I'm completely sure about is, though I know you are all out there to get me and I also know that you have all been thinking horrible things about me, that there are reds waiting under my bed and Nazis hiding in my wardrobe, well, I'm sure I'm no paranoid.
And let's be serious: I do think there's a world war out there. Why should I think this? Just because 3,000 out of 300 million Americans were killed over three years ago? Come on, that's not a war, that's just a common terrorist attack with a couple of zeroes added. It's business as usual, isn't it?
I remember when a friend of mine came to visit me, maybe 15 years ago, with the newest issue of "Veja", the Brazilian equivalent of Time magazine. He was outraged. That had to do with a teenage girl who lived in one of Sao Paulo's most exclusive residential closed suburb had been gang-raped and killed. No, it wasn't the crime that outraged my friend, but the fact that the magazine gave the story its cover-page. You see, he told me, had it been a poor black girl from the slums, she wouldn't have made it even to the magazine's most hidden page. I told him: of course not, but it's not the slum-dwellers who subscribe to "Veja" and if such a thing can happen in the town's wealthiest place, that's a sign things are getting really bad and that's news. I also told him: if you happen to find a roach at night in your kitchen, that means there's at least one roach in your house. But if you find one at high noon in your living-room you can be sure your house's roach-infested.
That's one of the meanings of 9/11. That you cannot be safe in Darfur or Beirut, in the Phillipines or Indonesia, that's a problem. But if you can be murdered by Islamic terrorists while you're on the top floor of the WTC, then that's not a problem anymore. That's much bigger. The progressive idea was to turn, for instance, Beirut into NY. If that's not being accomplished, this is bad enough. But when people start turning NY into Beirut, we're definitely moving backwards. And fast.
An attack that manages to ground all US and most of the world's air traffic and close down the stock markets around the planet is something qualitatively different from a bomb in an Ulster pub. Human life is fragile, so is democracy, the world economy, globalization etc. The US can absorb U$ 1 trillion in damages. The rest of the world cannot. The US can survive a nuke in Manhattan. Brazil can survive a nuke in Sao Paulo. But Brazil cannot survive a nuke in Manhattan. What most of the world's anti-Americans fail to understand is that whatever harms deeply the US harms us even more. Were Africa to suddenly disappear, it wouldn't make much of a change in the life of New Yorkers. Were NY to disappear, Africa would go along.
So, this is what I have to say for those who think that Americans have overreacted to 9/11. Actually they have under-reacted. One more attack on America and Latin America will be condemned to a further hundred years of solitude and misery.
There are around 200 countries in the world today. Think that every floor of each WTC tower was one of them. The richest were those closer to the ground, the poorest the highest ones. If the base crumbles, the hundredth floor is unable to stand alone in thin air. Besides, the closer people were to the ground, the safer they were. The whole world is the WTC and those who inhabit its higher floors want to see the building collapse. That's as clever as setting fire to the floor below your own.
But there's more. France has something around 5 million Muslims nowadays. Does anybody think that after an attack on the Tour Montparnasse followed by a couple of bombs at the stations Opera and Louvre there'd be social peace and tolerance there? Are we sure that after blowing up Big Ben and Buckingham Palace the Brits would keep their stiff upper lip? And what about a 747 setting the Vatican afire and killing the Pope? How long would the unbearable lightness of being an Euro multiculti pomo last? Sometimes I think that the French government forbade the use of veil by Muslim schoolgirls as a way to make them a little less visible to the rest of the Frenchmen.
The actual damage of a terrorist attack has less to do with its dimensions than with the when and where. A single, tiny blood clot can kill a 200 pound guy. On the other hand, though some people consider the possible nuking of a Western city a nasty thing that should cause no overreaction, the truth is that a nuke cannot logically be answered by anything less than at least two nukes. How long would any US president remain in the White House if, after the nuking of, say, LA, he went to national TV to say: we'll find the culprits, capture them, send them to the Hague and you can all be sure they'll spend the next ten years behind bars?
In short: either in the US or elsewhere, even in Europe, if the governments and elites do not act, the people will eventually do.
There are two candidates in the US presidential election. One gets it, the other doesn't. I won't be voting for Bush, but that's only because I'm not American.