The Briefing 06-03-14

The Briefing 06-03-14

The Briefing


June 3, 2014

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


It’s Tuesday, June 3, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.


The prisoner exchange between the United States military and the Taliban has led to a host of questions; some of them having to do with the ethics of negotiating with terrorists and others with the deep questions that involve the soldier who was rescued. In this case, the American soldier was Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. He was taken possession and captive by the Taliban back in 2009 and he was just released and will soon be in American custody in a prisoner exchange that was arranged between the Obama administration and the highest echelon of the leadership of the Taliban in Afghanistan. If this is newsworthy to you, it’s newsworthy to just about everyone because the assumption has been that, since 2012, the United States government had no direct contact with the Taliban whatsoever. There are very deep questions involved in this prisoner transfer. As Brad Knickerbocker reports for The Christian Science Monitor, “For now, the story for US Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is one of physical and mental recovery and reunion with his family.” But the next paragraph is this:


But very soon it will involve debriefings about the nearly five years of his captivity by Taliban fighters, who apparently held him in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, where his infantry unit had been engaged in combat.


Military and intelligence experts will want to know how [the Alaska-based soldier] was treated, anything he can tell them about his captors, and what he learned about insurgent capabilities.


Then comes the next paragraph:


But for the young soldier – 23 when he became a prisoner of war, now 28 – those debriefings also will include difficult questions about how and why he happened to be in a position where he fell into the hands of Taliban fighters.


At this point in the developing narrative, Sgt. Bergdahl seems to have grown disillusioned with the mission, bitter about the Army and especially higher ranking enlisted men and officers, and simply walked off – gone “outside the wire” or protective base limits – and disappeared.


The official newspaper of the Army, The Army Times, reported:


Though Americans may be celebrating the release of the only American soldier held prisoner in Afghanistan by the Taliban, the reaction of the military community has been mixed at best.


That indicates something of the deep and very difficult questions that are embedded within this prisoner release and even in just the story of the American prisoner now released, Bowe Bergdahl. As Elizabeth Weise of USA Today reports, Bowe Bergdahl grew up in a conservative Christian family in Idaho. He studied ballet, was homeschooled, and then, according to USA Today and other major media, he spent time in a Buddhist monastery. Eventually, he served in a parachute infantry regiment of the Army’s 25th Infantry Division. The former pastor of the young man when he was a teenager at the Sovereign Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Boise said, “If there’s anyone I think of pulling through this and doing well, it’s Bowe. He has the mental and physical stamina not to be crushed by this experience.”


And yet the young man’s story also reveals a good many questions. As a matter of fact, more questions than answers. Even in the USA Today coverage, the pastor is quoted as saying about the time that the young man spent after being homeschooled in a Christian home to spending time in a Buddhist monastery, he said, “He was going through an exploratory phase in his life. He’d grown up in a conservative Christian home and was trying to figure out if this was his faith or his parents’ faith.”


Another very troubling aspect of this story is the fact that at least five American soldiers died in rescue attempts for Bowe Bergdahl over the past five years; most of them very early in his capture by the Taliban. Furthermore, back in the year 2012, his parents gave an interview to Rolling Stone magazine and they gave the reporters for the magazine access to letters and emails that Bowe had sent them during his time in Afghanistan. Among the communications he sent to his parents, just before he walked off the base, he said this:


The U.S. Army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It’s the Army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good sergeants are getting out as soon as they can and they are telling us privates to do the same. I am sorry for everything here.


Again, as the major national media are reporting, at this point as the story is unfolding, it appears that he simply grew disillusioned with the mission of the United States Army in Afghanistan. He grew very bitter about the Army’s leadership there and in Washington, and he simply walked off the American premises, gone “outside the wire,” as the military says, and then he simply disappeared. We now know that he was taken capture by the Taliban and that he spent five years there. He was 23 when he was captured and, thus, 28 when he was liberated just in recent days. While all persons of goodwill should celebrate with Bowe Bergdahl’s parents about the knowledge that their son has been rescued from the Taliban, these other very difficult questions will continue.


And then there is the even larger context of the issue of negotiating with terrorists. Almost every American president, going all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, has insisted that America never negotiates with terrorists and must never enter into a negotiation with those who intend to do this kind of evil. But, as just about everyone who knows the situation in every administration has acknowledged, almost every president faced with a similar kind of challenge has found some way to negotiate to some extent with those who can only be rightly described as terrorists. One of the most troubling aspects of the release of Bowe Bergdahl is the fact that the prisoner exchange involved the American release of five of the most dangerous and senior leaders of the Taliban that had been held in custody in Guantánamo Bay in the detention facility there. And, thus, it was a trade of five for one, and it was also a trade of one American sergeant for five very senior leaders guilty of terroristic war crimes among the Taliban. The Christian worldview informs us that this kind of situation is excruciatingly complex and difficult. In the fog of war, we face basic questions of morality that simply cannot be easily answered or easily dismissed. The questions surround this kind of prisoner exchange and they will continue to be debated.


In its coverage of the deeply moral issues involved in this situation, USA Today quotes Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University Center for Security Studies. He said that even as America continually says, especially through its presidential administrations, “We do not negotiate with terrorists,” he describes this as more of a mantra that a fact. He said, “We have long negotiated with terrorists. Virtually every other country in the world has negotiated with terrorists, despite pledges never to do so. We should be tough on terrorism,” he said, “but not our fellow countrymen who are their captives, which means having to make a deal with the devil when there is no alternative.” Well that very expression “deal with the devil” indicates something of the difficult morality involving this kind of question. What kind of exchange of prisoners is fair and just and righteous? Is it fair to trade five for one? Is it fair to trade an American soldier, who committed no war crimes, for five Taliban leaders, who were known to have plotted and accomplished mass murder? Perhaps the sanest analysis of all this comes from the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal. They wrote:


The return of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from the clutches of the Taliban is cause for relief for his family and all Americans, but there’s no denying that the price of his recovery is high. The Obama Administration swapped five of the hardest cases at Guantánamo in a fashion that will encourage terrorists to kidnap more Americans to win the release of more prisoners.


Was the Obama Administration right to trade one American sergeant for five hardened Taliban leaders? I think it’s almost impossible for us to say. This is one of those situations in which we have to acknowledge that we do not have all of the information that was available to our national leaders. As a matter of fact, it would be impossible for us to have access to all of the knowledge they had at the time. We are certain of the fact that they will sometimes make the right decision and sometimes they will fail. We are also aware that sometimes, in the fog of war, in the difficult moral situation of armed conflict and the war on terror, decisions have to be made that sometimes are not known or proved to be either right or wrong, just or unjust, until some considerable time has passed.


The Christian worldview reminds us that in a fallen world we find ourselves often in situations that are just this virtually impossible to unpack in any simple moral terms. But this much is clear: if the trade of Sergeant Bergdahl for the five seasoned Taliban leaders leads to the capture of more Americans in order for the Taliban to negotiate the release of even more of their leaders, it will have been a very bad deal indeed, or, to quote Bruce Hoffman of Georgetown University, “a very bad deal with the devil.”


President Obama was swept into office in 2008 and reelected in 2012 largely on the promise that he intended to be as uninvolved in international relations as possible. But one of the situations President Obama has had to face is the fact that the world has not cooperated with his ambition and he’s been drawn into international conflict again and again. And there is every reason to believe that this president, who did not savor involvement in these international situations, is also not at his best when having to deal with the challenges of very difficult international relations and, in particular, the war on terror. This president appears to have a great deal of difficulty knowing how to answer aggression, and, as the situation in Syria made very clear, he’s seemed to be willing to draw lines in the sand, only to retreat from his own line. There is every reason to believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin has noted this kind of American withdrawal and this kind of presidential hesitation and he sees this as his opportunity to capture the Crimean Peninsula from the nation of Ukraine, and, furthermore, to try to intimidate and destabilize that country as a whole.


Last Wednesday, delivering the commencement address at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, President Obama tried to reset his entire foreign-policy with a major address. The end result, in terms of the coverage of the event and response from world capitals in the days after the address, is that the world does not have any clearer picture of how the American president sees the role of the United States on the world picture in the present and in the years ahead. The president’s speech was mostly a repeat of what he had said in previous addresses. He held up the polarities of interventionism and isolationism and said that America must give itself to neither, and yet the president really offered no understanding of what he believes America’s role in the world to be or what it should be, either in the present or in the future. The American president seems to be deeply hesitant and ambivalent about America’s role in the world scene and, to give him just a little bit of credit here, perhaps one reason for that is that the American people themselves seem to be quite ambivalent and somewhat hesitant about understanding America’s role on the world scene. This adds up to a time of global danger that is made even worse by the fact that the United States is the only major nation on earth that has had, at least in terms of recent decades, the ability to settle some issues short of the kind of disaster they would otherwise become. Even the French Foreign Minister recently related the fact that the world complains when America is involved in the world, but the world is now complaining when America is not involved in the world.


But perhaps the most important aspect of the president’s address at West Point last week was his affirmation of the fact that the war on terror, which he had largely dismissed when running for president, is actually more acute now that in any point in America’s history. He said, “For the perceivable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism.” The president went on to say that the challenge of world terrorism directed toward the United States is no longer primarily a centralized leadership such as Al Qaeda, but is now a diffused set of terroristic cells around the world. What the president did not say is that virtually all of these are somehow related to Islam.


That takes me to yesterday’s edition of The New York Times where there was a major story on a controversy that has emerged over the 9/11 Museum there in New York City. The museum, of course, has to identify the cause of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The text panels in the museum include language such as this, “Al Qaeda represents a tiny fraction of the world’s Muslims,” but in our politically correct age, which often embraces nothing less than intellectual dishonesty, that kind of language isn’t enough because it links the terror attacks with Islam, and now there are those within the Islamic community and the larger interfaith community of New York City who are calling for a change. The newspaper quotes Peter Gudaitis, who said, “We give Muslim extremist too much credit when we call them Islamic or Islamists.” He said, “They are perverters of the faith, and to allow them to carry that mantle is exactly what they want.”


But it’s very interesting to see that the newspaper article of The New York Times yesterday also reveals that Muslims in New York City are trying to remove one woman who was on the board of the museum’s organization. That woman, Debra Burlingame, has been targeted for removal because she told Fox News, “When are citizens going to rise up and demand that the government acknowledge that Islam is a transnational threat? That government denial is killing us.” Fox News host Megyn Kelly then said, “They think you are an Islamophobe.” Ms. Burlingame then responded, “There’s no such thing as an irrational fear of Islam or Muslims when we know that virtually 80% of terror attacks in the world are committed by radical Muslims.”


Another example of the kind of political correctness I’m talking about appears in a syndicated column by Leonard Pitts that also appeared last week. Pitts writes movingly about the plight of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim. She’s a 27-year-old mother who is now threatened with execution because she is charged with the capital crime of converting to Christianity. She is, of course, in Sudan where international attention has recently been directed to her. There, under the penalty of death and awaiting a death sentence, she has given birth to a baby who is now with her in the jail, along with Mrs. Ibrahim’s 20-month-old son. Leonard Pitts writes movingly about her plight. He even goes so far as to state correctly that converting from Islam is against the law in Sudan and Muslim women are forbidden from marrying outside their faith. Ibrahim’s crimes, he says, against that code were apparently reported by her own brother. She was tried in order to disavow her faith, but she refused to do so, and for that, the authorities in Sudan gave her the death penalty. Before she dies, he says, she is to be whipped 100 lashes—the court having also found her guilty of adultery. She was found guilty of adultery, by the way, because they did not recognize her marriage to Daniel Wani, a Sudanese Christian who has American citizenship.


But the problem with Leonard Pitts’ article, the demonstration of the political correctness that is so deadly here, is that he tries to enlarge this to suggest that this is just an example of something that is found in many places of the world among many religions of the world. But that is manifestly false. This kind of capital crime, this kind of death sentence, handed down for conversion from one faith to another, is found almost exclusively in the Muslim world, and honesty compels us to say that it is found pervasively through the Muslim world.


Sadly, as if to make the very point we’re making here, the same issues of the newspapers of the last several days, dealing with these issues, has related, for instance, this headline, “Apparent Suicide Bomber in Syria Was From the United States,” dealing with the fact that United States officials have confirmed that it was an United States citizen who is believed to have died in Syria, blowing himself up in a suicide attack. He did so after becoming a Muslim extremist.


Similarly, yesterday’s edition of The New York Times includes a major news story indicating that French authorities announced on Sunday that they had arrested the man who is now believed to have killed three people last month at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. The suspect has been identified as a 29-year-old Frenchman with a long criminal history who traveled to Syria last year to join with radical Islamist fighters there. As The New York Times acknowledges, this brings to mind the killings that took place in March of 2012 in southern France by Mohammed Merah, a self-proclaimed member of Al Qaeda. Mr. Merah was a French Algerian dual citizen. He spent time in prison and was believed to have traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan for combat training with Islamist fighters. He killed three French soldiers, later a rabbi, and then three Jewish children outside a Jewish day school.


I can only wonder if the editors of The New York Times noted the incongruity of these news stories that appeared simultaneously on the same day in the same section of their newspaper in its print edition. But my reason for giving these stories so much attention today is this: we live in an increasingly secular world and many of the people who are trying to shape the news and interpret it for us are operating out of radically secular worldviews. The postmodern worldview that now takes the shape of political correctness is one of those highly secular worldviews. It seems almost impossible to someone operating out of that worldview that theology would matter, but, as we say again and again, theology matters, and in this case the theology of Islam matters intensely, deeply, inextricably to the pattern of Islamic world terrorism. The people who largely shape public opinion in America increasingly do not believe that theology can matter and when it obviously does matter, they try their best to find some other explanation for what has taken place. But as Christians understand, theology does matter. It always matters. And as we also understand, every single human being operates out of some kind of a worldview. And as we also understand, every one of those worldviews is in some degree theological. It simply has to be. Even the atheist operates out of a worldview that is inescapably theological.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, just go to Remember last Saturday’s release of the new edition of Ask Anything: Weekend Edition. And remember that even as the spring season has now come to a close, we’re getting ready for the season that will begin in late summer. So give us a call with your question in your voice. Call us at 877-505-2058. That’s 877-505-2058. I’m speaking to you from Anchorage, Alaska, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

Podcast Transcript

1) Controversy over POW trade example of moral complexity of fallen world

Did Bowe Bergdahl go AWOL in Afghanistan?, Christian Science Monitor (Brad Knickerbocker)

Military community reaction mixed to Bergdahl release, Army Times (Joe Gould)

Is it ever right to negotiate with terrorists?, USA Today (Alan Gomez)

Sergeant Bergdahl’s Duty, Wall Street Journal (Editorial Board)

2)  President’s ambivalence over America’s global role reflects nation’s ambivalence 

Full transcript of President Obama’s commencement address at West Point, Washington Post (President Barack Obama)

3) Secular worldview unable to recognize significance of theology in Islamic violence

Visitors Fault Sept. 11 Museum’s Portrayal of Islam, New York Times (Sharon Otterman)

Faith cannot be coerced, Miamia Herald (Leonard Pitts, Jr)

Apparent Suicide Bomber In Syria Was From U.S., Wall Street Journal (Devlin Barrett)

Suspect Held in Jewish Museum Killings, New York Times (Scott Sayare)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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