briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, December 2, 2019

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

It’s Monday, December 2nd, 2019. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

How Was a Convicted Terrorist Free and Able to Carry Out Last Week’s Attack on London Bridge? The Secular Mind and the Problem of Moral Evil

NBC News put the issue squarely. “British police were scrambling Saturday to work out how a man convicted of terrorism offenses managed to carry out a deadly stabbing attack on London Bridge a year after his release from prison.”

The story broke on Friday and was widely disseminated by international media through the day on Saturday but the story began to change. It doesn’t change in its basic core. You have yet another terror attack in London, this one took place on London Bridge on Friday. As the Wall Street Journal reported, “A terrorist killed two people in a stabbing attack in the heart of London before being shot dead by police according to UK officials, prompting authorities to lock down a busy area on the edge of the financial district and bringing back memories of a 2017 rampage nearby.”

Indeed the parallels were very haunting and the story as it unfolded on Friday and early on Saturday appeared to be yet another terror attack, in this case, one that was at least stopped even though two were killed by bystanders who became actively involved. One of them, strangely enough, using a narwhal tusk as a weapon. But then there were two massive twists to the story and that NBC News lead gets right to the issue. It turns out that the man who is suspected of having carried out these attacks was actually someone who had already been convicted of the crime of terrorism in Great Britain and had been sent to prison. He was released basically early a year ago, and thus he was free to conduct the new terror attack on Friday.

Jamie Doward reporting for The Guardian, that’s a basically liberal newspaper in London, offers very insightful reporting, “That Usman Khan killed two people, having been released from prison under license for terrorist offenses, has raised a flurry of urgent questions concerning public safety and prisoner supervision.” Usman Khan is the name of the man now dead, who carried out the terror attacks on London bridge. As Doward says, “The most pressing question is why Khan who was jailed in 2012 for his part in an Al-Qaeda inspired plot to bomb high-profile locations and build a terrorist training camp in Pakistan was freed in the first place?”

Now you can imagine why people in Britain and elsewhere are asking that pressing question. How was this man ever released from prison since he was not only arrested but convicted in the UK of the crime of targeting bombings at the London stock exchange, the houses of parliament, and the United States embassy, as well as, we are told by The Guardian, several religious and political figures?

The Guardian’s story continues, “But Khan, then 20, admitted to a lesser charge engaging in conduct for the preparation of terrorism. The court heard that he had been secretly recorded talking about plans to recruit United Kingdom radicals to attend a training camp in Kashmir.” Along with another man, The Guardian tells us, he was then given an indeterminate public protection sentence and was told that he would serve at least eight years. However, within one year a judge had vacated that particular sentence. He was then sentenced to 16 years as a determinant sentence, but it turns out it wasn’t very determinant after all because he was released after just serving several years of that 16 year sentence.

The Guardian went on to explain, “Prisoners are usually released halfway through such sentences, but Khan had served less than seven years” — remember that was of a 16 year so-called determinant sentence — “when he was freed on license in December last year in order to wear a tag.” The Guardian then reports sensibly, “In the aftermath of the tragedy, politicians on all sides have claimed that the sentencing and supervision regime applied to terrorists needs revisiting.”

Now, if that’s the actual language used by a politician, it’s the kind of squeamish language that politicians use in order to appear to be saying something when actually they are saying nothing. It takes absolutely no insight or political courage to say that this kind of system needs to be revisited. As the story in The Guardian also reported in the London newspaper, the Observer tells us, Khan was not even considered a high risk. He was required to see a probation officer twice a week. The paper then said, “There was nothing in his pattern or behavior prior to the attacks that suggested his risk profile had changed.”

But what we now know, is that the risk profile that didn’t change was the original risk profile that led to the fact he was caught in a conspiracy to conduct bombings and was convicted in court and sentenced to prison. The Guardian also reports, “As is mandatory for convicted terrorists, he was on the government’s desistance and disengagement de-radicalization program and was attending a conference on prisoner rehabilitation organized by the University of Cambridge when he is alleged to have stabbed two people to death.”

So get this straight. Here is a young man who at age 20 was caught by British authorities in an attempted terror plot. He pleads to a lesser charge, not of terrorism, but of preparing for a terrorist act as if that makes a whole lot of difference. He was then given an indeterminant sentence. A year later, he was given a determinant sentence that turned out not to be determined and he served less than half of it, and, get the irony here, he was attending a conference on the rehabilitation of terrorist prisoners when he carried out the murderous attack.

The particular program that he was involved in, known as this desistance and disengagement de-radicalization program, we are told that it was founded by two academics, Dr. Amy Ludlow and Ruth Armstrong, and that the initiative has been “widely praised by penal reformers.” One activist for the program said, “They wanted to get academics out of ivory towers. They wanted prisoners and criminologists to sit together in the classroom and learn together.” But then even after this murderous attack, this activist said, “It would be a tragedy if what has happened had an impact on the initiative, maybe 98% of those who attend benefit from it. Remember,” said the activist, “some of those who chased him down were ex-offenders who’d been at the same conference.”

Indeed that turned out to be the second major shift in the story. It turned out that one of the individuals identified as a hero for stopping this terror attack was himself a convicted murderer. But then in a sentence that is most laden with worldview significance, The Guardian ends the story with these words, “Why Khan appears to have been beyond rehabilitation will now be the subject of intense scrutiny.” Well, of course it should be, but the whole question here is about rehabilitation.

Now, as Christians think about this kind of story and about the general issue of rehabilitation when it comes to criminal offenses in general, one of the things we think about is the fact that human change is possible. Moral change is possible. It is possible for someone who has done grievous wrong to live a life thereafter, which is free from that kind of grievous wrong. That’s exactly what we have to hope for as a society. But when you’re looking at a sane criminal justice system with a sane understanding of humanity and evil, you are looking at a system that has to understand up front that there are certain crimes and there are certain criminals who are beyond a reasonable hope of rehabilitation if that means setting them back amongst the general population, able to carry out the same kinds of crimes again.

As we have said, the Christian biblical worldview, accepts that there are people who have done horrible things who turn their lives around to some extent and no longer conduct or carry out those kinds of horrible things. Just think of the very celebrated morality tale that tells this story, most famously, Victor Hugo’s work Les Miserables, that is not only of course a major novel in Western history, but has also been turned into a dramatic presentation, a Broadway musical, and furthermore, a major motion picture. It’s a story that is compelling.

But the Christian worldview also understands right upfront the limitations on that very romanticized idea of moral rehabilitation. And when you’re looking at a case like what just took place in London, you are looking at a man who was convicted not just of a violent crime, but of plotting mass murder by means of bombs and other forms of attack. He was convicted in court and yet within just a matter of years, less than 10 years, he was put back on the streets even as he was required to check in with the probation office and even as he was involved in this conference, the meeting of which became the pretext for why he was even on that bridge and in that area able to carry out those attacks in the most horrifying refutation of that program imaginable.

But looking at this story that’s still unfolding and the public conversation about it, it is also clear that the secular worldview faces incredible limitations in its ability to address the key issue, the heart issue here, and that is the reality of sin and evil in the human heart. That issue is so familiar to Christians because it is so central to the Christian worldview. It is the Bible that makes very clear that the problem is not just bad things that happen to us, external events that have an internal effect. It’s the fact that we are not only those who sin, we are sinners.

But we have also seen what is in effect a moral disarmament, a unilateral disarmament on the part of Western societies in dealing with people who have given themselves over to this kind of evil. The secular worldview can’t really explain it. That’s not to say it’s not fascinated by it. Just consider the secular fascination with someone like Charles Manson in the United States. There is going to be a remarkable fascination with this question that was occasioned by the horrifying attack in London and the fact that it was carried out by a man who was supposedly rehabilitated by the system as evidence by the conference he was attending.

But then it’s also been very interesting to look at the British conversation about the convicted murderer who had the courage to step in in this case and stop this man from carrying out more murderous attacks. How in the world does a secular worldview deal with that? It turns out that it really can’t. You look at that public conversation. You have people saying, he might have been a hero for moments, but it has to be remembered that he is a convicted murderer or this as an act of heroism completely wipes out morally speaking, everything that he had done before. Neither of those is actually a morally sane response.

But the Christian worldview also makes clear that we should be glad when anyone does the right thing regardless of the context. We should be glad that this convicted murderer who was also attending this conference on rehabilitation, that that convicted murderer stepped in courageously to stop this man as a convicted terrorist from carrying out and even more murderous terrorist attack.

Coming back to the United States, it also reminds us of some of the unfinished business of the administration of President Barack Obama, and in this case we should be glad that it was unfinished. President Obama was elected in 2008 after the two terms served by president George W. Bush, Bush 43 as he’s often referred to. And when President Obama was running for office in 2008, he ran on a platform of the fact, that he would undo what the Bush administration had done in creating the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and keeping separate from the American criminal justice system certain people who had been so deeply involved in terrorism, including the 9/11 attacks, that there was no way that the American justice system — remember, they were not after all, and they are not American citizens — there is no way that the American justice system could handle them and there was no way that the Bush administration was going to take moral responsibility even for bringing them for a single second into the territory of the continental United States.

President Obama when he was a candidate in 2008 ran on a platform that included an unconditional guarantee that he would shut down the detention center at Guantanamo and that he would bring all those people to the United States for trial within the American criminal justice system. What’s the unfinished business? Once he was elected president, regardless of that pledge, President Obama did not do what he said he would do. And again, we have to be thankful that he didn’t. But all that points to the fact as well that when you are dealing with the reality of horrifying human evil set loose in something like a terrorist movement, it’s one thing to say what you would do when you’re running as a candidate. It’s another thing to have to take responsibility for those actions when you actually are elected and take the oath of office as president of the United States.

But in the final analysis, this is also where Christians must remind ourselves and each other, over and over again, we have no ultimate hope of any kind of rehabilitation that would take any form. We do not believe as Christians in any promise of rehabilitation. We do believe in the promise of regeneration. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not about our mere moral rehabilitation. It’s not that we don’t need it, it’s just that we need infinitely more than moral rehabilitation. What we need is regeneration. We must be born again. That comes only by the atoning power of the Lord Jesus Christ and the promise of the gospel. These days sadly, we aren’t surprised by confusion on this issue within a secular society. That’s just a secular society trying to think through all of these issues in a merely secular frame, but there’s no excuse for that kind of confusion among gospel Christians.

Part II

A Father’s Nazi Past Makes Headlines Today: History Never Forgets

But next, we’re going to shift from Britain to Germany, another story that talks about history and moral responsibility. This story also has an interesting twist. The reporter is Jack Ewing. The headline: “Fathers Nazi Past Engulfs A German Business Sage.” Ewing writes, “In his hay day, Roland Berger may have been the best connected man in Germany. He advised chancellors and chief executives, founded one of Europe’s leading management consulting firms and rode Germany’s postwar rebound to become one of the country’s richest self-made men. Business magazines put him on the cover. But,” Ewing writes, “in the twilight of his career, Mr. Berger’s image as a ubiquitous board room consigliere, an icon of the German economy is at risk. An expose by the newspaper, Handelsblatt, asserts that he repeatedly misrepresented a key element of his personal history portraying his father as a Nazi resistor, when in fact he was a high ranking Nazi official.”

Ewing goes on to tell us that the fallout from the Handelsblatt revelations has been devastating for the reputation of the business consultant and the story gets more interesting. It’s also been damaging to the reputation of the foundation he endowed with 50 million euros or about $55 million of his own money. The story tells us that the Roland Berger foundation was forced to just a month ago to cancel a ceremony to bestow its annual Human Dignity Awards after two of the three recipients said they would no longer accept, ironically enough, their ceremony was to be held at the Jewish museum in Berlin.

Summarizing the story, it turns out that the son Roland Berger had more or less invented the reality of his father, Georg Berger, and he had even named the Human Dignity Award for his father, portraying his father as a great defender of human dignity. He actually talked about the Gestapo coming to his house when he was a boy every six weeks. He went on to say, “I award the Human Dignity Award to people who contribute to freedom and tolerance, human rights and values all over the world.” The prize, by the way, was a cash that totaled about 1 million euros or over $1 million.

Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations, actually led the jury that had selected recipients. The newspaper Handelsblatt, as well as the New York Times, revealed the fact that Georg Berger, who died in 1977 was “an early member of the Nazi party, who later served as chief bookkeeper for the Hitler youth. Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler’s deputy once wrote him a letter of recommendation.” It also turns out that when Roland Berger was a small boy — he was seven when the war came to an end — his father and his family were actually living quote “in an elegant Villa in Vienna that had been seized from deported Jews,” also according to the documents unleashed by the two newspapers.

As the New York Times then summarized adroitly, “That would not matter so much if Roland Berger had not later may Georg burgers biography a part of his personal legend.” Now, it’s also interesting to note that Roland Berger’s himself now in his eighties. He was seven when the war came to an end. When the war did end, his father was examined by Allied authorities and he was found to have been both a Nazi and a victim of the Nazis pointing on another one of the great ironies of history. It turned that he had been early involved in the Hitler Youth and supportive of the Nazi party. But at our latter point, he was also under suspicion by the party and he may have been involved in at least some actions that may have mitigated to some extent, Nazi activities.

The reality is that history is messy. One of the messy questions in this case, is what the son actually even knew of his father. One of the phenomena that we note in the aftermath of World War II in Germany and elsewhere, but in Germany in particular, is that many parents invented pasts that they handed onto their children who did not know until this kind of revelation that their parents, most often in this case, their fathers were not so much heroic as they were complicit with the Nazi regime.

And this points to a very deep issue, which is the fact that there was a myth that developed after the second World War, largely on the part of many German people, that the Nazis had been a bare minority and that the country itself had been terrorized by the Nazis without the recognition that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party was actually elected to office after there was abundant evidence about the evil intention of the party, not to mention its anti-Semitism and other moral deformities already extremely evident.

Furthermore, when you look at the mechanisms of the Reich, it is very clear that many day to day Germans were conscripted into the entire effort, including boys as young as 13 and 14 who are on the front lines of the Wehrmacht at the end of the war. But historians began to peel back the onion-like layers of history in order to understand that there was complicity that was particularly problematic when it came in the early years of the Nazi regime and continued after events such as Kristallnacht, the infamous attack upon Jewish synagogues by the thousands throughout Germany and Austria.

But from a Christian worldview perspective, what this story from recent days in the New York Times and elsewhere indicates, is the fact that history never actually goes away. It is not a trap from which we can ever escape. History is history. The records are somewhere and those records are likely one day to be released, especially when you come to a prominent personage who after all was described here as perhaps the best connected man in all of Germany, a very wealthy man. And as the article makes very clear, he brought the scrutiny on himself by establishing this foundation for human rights and human dignity and then designing to give the highest award in the name of his father, based upon what is now revealed to have been a fictitious identity and moral profile.

Once again, we see that the secular world understands that evil is a question that has to be answered. That’s the very context of this article. The article presents this as a morally serious issue now confronted not only by Roland Berger but also by other Germans trying to figure out how to unravel this kind of moral quandary. Evil is recognized as real, partly because even as you had a lot of moral relativism and all kinds of moral confusion in the 20th century, by the time the end of World War II came and the reckoning that followed in subsequent decades, just about everyone who was willing to admit to the reality of evil in any form was ready to point the finger at the Nazi regime and the third Reich and say, “If anything or if anyone was ever evil, that is evil.”

Now, this also led to all kinds of moral recalibrations that were unhealthy, because you began to have people talk about, for example, human evil, as if Adolf Hitler was in a category all to himself, along with other Nazi leaders, and you had this kind of sliding scale of human evil that actually in a therapeutic age helped many people to believe that they were morally better than someone else and thus to believe that there was no basic moral problem that they faced. After all, they were not in the third Reich. They are not members of the Nazi party. They were not in the inner ring of Adolf Hitler. They therefore are by contrast more morally innocent.

We go back to the first story and remind ourselves as Christians that we are thankful that evil is not unrestrained in the human heart. It’s not unrestrained in the world, but that also raises the question restrained by what or restrained by whom. This is where Christians understand that God himself in his sovereignty over the universe restrains evil from having its full run otherwise human beings would all be wiped out by the murderous impulses of the evil human heart.

Furthermore, we understand that God has put structures in creation including the moral law that are also restraints, even making us in his image, he gave us a conscience that internally cries out in a way that is also in most people a restraining force. The lack of that restraining force is what’s defined as one being a psychopath. The secular mind has the moral capacity, and we should be thankful for this much, to be able to point to someone who’s complicit with the Nazi regime and say, there is an evil person. But this is also a secular mind that cannot comprehend the New Testament teaching that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Part III

World War Two Era Espionage Is in the Headlines in 2019: How Do You Rewind Moral Questions in History? Who Can?

But next, as on this Monday we are considering morality in history, we go back to another recent headline article in the New York Times. This one by William J. Broad. Here’s the headline, “Fourth Spy Unearth In US Atomic Bomb Project.” As Broad reports, there had always been a bit of mystery as to exactly how the Soviets obtained all of the workable plans for an atomic weapon just four years after the detonation of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. How was it that the most closely guarded secret in human history, somehow wasn’t so secret in such a way that the Soviets were to detonate an atomic bomb in just four years?

The fact is that very quickly it became clear that there were spies within the Atomic Bomb Project and particularly at Los Alamos. That is the headquarters in the West of the Manhattan Project as it was known that produced America’s nuclear arsenal. William Broad reports, “The world’s first atomic bomb was detonated on July, 16, 1945 in the New Mexico desert, a result of a highly secretive effort code-named The Manhattan Project, whose nerve center lay nearby in Los Alamos. Just 49 months later, the Soviets detonated a nearly identical device in central Asia and Washington’s monopoly on nuclear arms abruptly ended.”

The question was, as Broad indicates, “How Moscow managed to make such quick progress, and that question has long fascinated scientists, federal agents, and historians.” However, it turns out that there is no longer in need to be fascinated. We can now know exactly what happened. It was well known that there was a group of spies. Many of them later clearly identified working within the Manhattan Project and within the context of Los Alamos. But what became clear in recent days, is the fact that there was a fourth spy and his identity is now known. Oscar Seborer had worked at the wartime facility, Los Alamos, but according to the Times, he “nonetheless managed to pass sensitive information about the design of the American weapon to Soviet agents.”

Now, here’s where the story gets more interesting. It turns out that those American agents and American authorities actually knew, as of course the Soviets knew, that Seborer was the fourth spy. But that had been something not released to the American public until a trio of historians worked, as the New York Times said, to bring the reality to light. As the Times tells us, “Seborer fled to the Soviet Union not long after the Soviet detonation. The FBI eventually learned of his defection and the espionage, but kept the information secret.”

The researchers writing in the journal, Studies in Intelligence, that’s the in-house journal of the Central Intelligence Agency — the article by the way, is entitled, “On The Trail Of A Fourth Soviet Spy At Los Alamos” — they said they were still gathering information, but it was abundantly clear that Oscar Seborer was that fourth spy.

Now just consider the verdict of history. Seborer has been dead, we now know that he went to the Soviet Union and he died there is an elderly man. He probably died thinking that his secret was safe, but of course it wasn’t safe and no doubt he didn’t know that this front page article in the New York Times would run in the year 2019, but he must have known that it was possible if not probable, that one day his reality as the fourth Soviet spy would be known. Before leaving this story, another fascinating and dark part of this story, is the fact that he was a part of a family, now believed to be a family of spies.

But finally, as we’re talking about the verdict of history, it also turns out that there was a heroic Soviet spy who died in just the last several days at age 93. Why would we speak of a Soviet spy as a heroine? It is because operating as a Soviet spy, she uncovered a death plot against not only Joseph Stalin, but also Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at their 1943 meeting in Tehran.

As The Guardian reported, “An Armenian woman who became a Soviet spy and helped foil a Nazi plot to assassinate Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt in 1943 has died age 93. Goar Vartanian, who with her husband Gevork, worked as a secret agent on numerous missions, died last Monday. She’s going to be buried in one of Moscow’s most prestigious historic cemeteries. It was Goar Vartanian who helped thwart the Nazi operation known as Operation Long Jump, in which the Nazis hoped to assassinate all three of the allied leaders in one attack.”

Again, one of the ironies of history, it turns out that the Western media report on the death of a former Soviet agent who also helped to save the life of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, not so much celebrated for saving the life of one of the most murderous individuals in the 20th century, Joseph Stalin. But then it turns out that the two leaders of Western democracies were saved largely because, one of the Soviet agents determined that there was going to be an attack upon the Soviet dictator at the same time.

The final thought for today, how do you rewind and unwind all these moral questions in history? The fact is we can’t. Only God can and God will.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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