Giles Fraser: Humanism fails to face the horror

27 October 2010

ONE OF the most disturbing things to emerge from the recently leaked Iraq war logs is the story that an Iraqi doctor sold to al-Qaeda a list of patients with special needs, so that they could be conned into becoming suicide-bombers.

On 1 February 2008, two women with Down syndrome were fooled into wearing explosive vests, and were sent into the Baghdad pet market. For many Sunni extremists, the buying and selling of pets is considered to be theologically un­acceptable: haram.

The first woman’s vest was detonated from a safe distance by mobile phone at 10 a.m., while the woman was in the bird section of the market. Dozens of people were torn to pieces. As traders gathered to assess the carnage, the second woman walked into the crowd and her bomb was triggered, killing dozens more. Altogether, 73 died and 160 were injured.

How do we process this type of horror, spiritually and emotionally? Often, of course, we try to avoid facing this reality altogether. We prefer to hear the story of how 33 Chilean miners were heroically res­cued from their underground prison. Stories such as that make us feel good about our humanity.

Or, if we are made to face up to the horrendous brutality of war, we readily set those responsible at an existential distance from ourselves. “They are inhuman,” we too often say — though the truth is that it is only human beings who behave like this.

I wonder why it is women who write best about evil: Mary Midgley, Gitta Sereny, Gillian Rose, Hannah Arendt. Perhaps it is because, unlike men, they do not so readily refocus their distress at hearing the pet-market story into some passionate expression of retributive anger. This allows time and space for a more disturbing reality to dawn: that we might have more in common with the perpetrators than we are com­fortable acknowledging.

Not least, we share a common humanity. Thus, in the horror of the pet market, we are obliged to recog­nise what human beings — human beings like us in many ways — are actually capable of.

What, then, are we to make of humanism as a philosophy? If these brilliant women writers are right, the idea that the category “humanity” is capable of providing us with a sound moral compass is highly problematic. Secular humanism works if we allow ourselves only those feel-good stories of the triumph of the human spirit, determination, and ingenuity. These are the stories we love to hear. We like the way they speak to us of ourselves. But they tell only half the truth.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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