Galileo, carbolic acid, and 30 terror plots in England

November 10, 2006

It is amazing how many facts that we now take for granted were bitterly opposed when they were suggested for the first time.

The textbook example, of course, is the reception of Galileo’s proof that Earth moved round the Sun, not the other way around. In the ensuing brouhaha Galileo prudently rescinded his views, acknowledging to a Mr. Inquisitor that his argument was just a senior moment, and promising to refrain from further speculations on celestial matters.

And to think of it, it was not a big deal. Whether the Sun moves around the Earth, or the Earth around the Sun – what difference does it make for us, down here?

But negligence of seemingly abstruse matters can have outcomes that are far more tragic. Trying to deal with extremely high death rate in maternity wards, Scottish doctor Alexander Gordon suggested, back in 1795, that obstetricians should wash their hands in carbolic acid before assisting at childbirth. He was ignored.

Fifty years – and many thousand deaths – later, Oliver Wendell Holmes repeated Dr. Gordon’s suggestion. He was ridiculed.

Dr. Holmes’ Viennese contemporary Ignaz Semmelweiss came to precisely to the same conclusion on his own, and again warned that the doctors were introducing fatal infections into maternity wards. He was laughed off by practicing physicians, took it hard, and died insane. If was only in 1867 – more than seventy years after the suggestion was first made – that, on Joseph Lister’s insistence, doctors adopted strict rules of hygiene.

The story had a happy end, but how many had to die to prove the establishment wrong?

And today, we are faced with another threat – terrorism. Just today we were warned of 30 terror plots being tracked in England. All sorts of theories are being advanced by the political and academic establishment to explain terrorism, or to explain it away: historical, economic, educational. All sorts of methods are suggested to fight it: military, fiscal, political.

Yet one reason for terrorism is outside the pale: True Faith, or, more precisely, idolatry. We hear day in and day out that terrorists pervert religion, that terrorism has nothing, just nothing to do with religion. “The MI5 chief’s analysis indicates the huge problems that the government, security services, Muslim communities and wider society face in getting a grip on the mechanisms of radicalization,” we are told by today’s BBC analysis entitled Can radicalism be tackled? But why are there “huge problems?“ Because we are unable to deal with the source of terrorism – idolatrous religiosity. Our very culture forbids us from looking at the problem from the prospective which demands criticism of another’s piety. Whatever we say, we must not touch religion. We must be nice, we must be polite, we must be respectful, we must be politically correct. Religion at fault? Look the other way!

Well, isn’t that just another case of blatant disregard of unpleasant reality, like the one we saw in Galileo’s story, or that of advance in antiseptics? Shouldn’t we know better by now than to discard ideas when they collide with deeply entrenched established opinions?

We’d better. If it takes another seventy years to prove to those dismissing the notion that idolatrous religiosity is the root cause of terrorism and that idol-worshiper’s piety needs to be attacked and debunked, we will have lost the battle: the terrorists will get an atom bomb before terrorism is defeated.

Many thousands had to die before the notion that doctors better wash their hands – and wash their hands better – took root. Millions more will, if we don’t address the single most important root cause of terrorism: idolatrous religiosity.

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