What did Gen. Boykin say that got some people so angry?

Howie Kurtz has a rundown of the chit-chat on the Boykin affair, on the theme that it’s become part of the culture wars. That general thesis seems right to me.

But anyone who thinks that Kurtz is either a dupe or a tool of the right wing won’t find anything in the article to disabuse him of that notion. Here’s Kurtz’s description of the affair:

In this case, the lieutenant general, according to the Los Angeles Times and NBC News, had told church groups that radical Islamists hated the United States “because we’re a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian and the enemy is a guy named Satan.”

Well, no, actually. That isn’t what the flap is about: that’s merely what Boykin’s defenders are trying to pretend it’s about.

Some people do find the “Christian nation” idea offensive, but I doubt anyone finds it so offensive that someone should be fired for mentioning it. Others find the “enemy is Satan” idea a little bit chilling in terms of its spiritual arrogance (unless — as was not the case here — it’s coupled with a call for self-examination) but again it’s hardly a major scandal. If the controversy were as Kurtz portrays it, I would be among the General’s loud and insistent defenders.

Those of us who think that Boykin should have been fired the day the story hit the papers [*] think so because of two other things Boykin said, neither of which Kurtz bothers to quote. The bigger one is his assertion (from which he has subsequently tried to back away) that the people who call the Ruler of the Universe “Allah” are idolators. The smaller one is his assertion that a photograph he took in Mogadishu actually shows Satan in the sky.

The first of those assertions is, by your leave, ignorant and bigoted. The word “Allah” in Arabic is intended to point to the same entity that pious Jews call “HaShem” (“The Name”) or Elohaynu (“our God”) or Adonai (“The Lord”) (because the four-letter combination taken to represent His Name may not be written or pronounced) and Christians call simply “God” or sometimes “God the Father.” (Arguably, the Christian Trinity can’t, as a matter of pure logic, be the same entity as HaShem or Allah, each thought of as fundamentally One rather than Three, but Christians and Jews agreed a long time ago not to go there, and presumably the General’s defenders don’t want to rally around an interpretation of his comment that would imply that Jews are idolaters, too.)

[Mickey Kaus (Thursday, October 23) relays a reader’s letter incorporating an inoffensive interpretation of Gen. Boykin’s remarks — that anyone who thinks he can send God on his personal errands is effectively worshipping an idol — but goes on to note that Boykin’s subsequent remarks are inconsistent with that interpretation. Of course, by that exacting standard, praying for victory before a football game, or asking the Nameless to smite one’s foes in battle, or identifying one’s personal or national adversaries with the Great Adversary, also count as idolatry.]

Neither ignorance nor bigotry is a firing offense, but a senior official in the Defense Department, if he happens to be an ignorant bigot, can reasonably be required to keep his ignorant bigotry under his hat, and fired if he fails to do so. He profoundly insulted about one billion people, including several million Americans and not a small number of servicepeople, and contradicted the President’s decision not to frame the struggle against Islamicist terrorism in Christian v. Muslim terms.

The assertion about the photograph shouldn’t offend anyone but the Satanists — who presumably don’t want their guy held responsible for the bad behavior of Somali warlords — and they’re a sufficiently smally and marginal group that offending them doesn’t carry much cost. However, there might be reason to doubt that someone capable of looking at a cloud formation and reporting that he sees the Devil has the intellectual self-discipline required of the man in charge of intelligence for the DoD.

One of the nastiest tactics in the culture wars is portraying the other side as objecting furiously to something that any reasonable person would regard as trivial or harmless. That’s what Boykin’s defenders are doing in this case, and that’s what Kurtz has (deliberately or inadvertently) helped them to do.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com