Tuesday, February 14, 2023
It's Tuesday, February 14, 2023.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Both Natural and Moral Evil: Death Toll from Turkey-Syria Earthquake Raises Above 36,000 — And Those Governments Bear Some Responsibility for That Staggering Tragedy
The numbers coming out of Turkey and Syria these days are just absolutely horrifying. We are talking about a scale of death and of course of loss and destruction of life that almost defies the moral imagination. Now, there have been natural disasters that have led to greater loss of human life, but when we're talking about earthquakes and we are talking about this part of the world, we are looking right now at one of those history headline making tragedies that over time becomes better known to us at the personal level.
A life here, a life there, a baby found in the rubble, a 40-year-old woman rescued beyond the time that people thought anyone could have survived in that area under that rubble. You have story after story after story, and then the horrifying sights, some of them by satellite. The satellite images are important because they tell us something that can be seen even from beyond planet Earth looking down at the planet. What do you see? You see a soccer stadium turned into an immediate refugee camp, but you also see areas in which cemeteries are now emerging where no cemetery had existed, and you are looking at mass burials.
This morning, National Public Radio reported that at least some of these burial sites at one point are bearing 4,000 dead and then having to move on. You also, of course here are looking at incalculable human loss and human heartache. There were entire families wiped out because especially as those stacked department buildings collapsed, you had families that were seated for meals. You had families gathered together, the entire family lost in the rubble, extended family which especially in that area of the world is so essential often economically so.
You have extended family at this point, not even knowing if entire branches of the family were wiped out by the earthquake, but as you're thinking about this theologically, and obviously our hearts and prayers go towards the area there in Turkey and Syria where the devastation and the loss is just so real. We also have to understand that there are real issues to be addressed here, and one is a fundamental distinction that all morally aware people have to make. It is a distinction between natural and moral evil.
Now, as you're looking at this in the history of the Christian Church, that distinction has been incredibly important because if you are looking at something like say an earthquake, let's just think about it, you have natural evil. The earthquake happened. There is no accusation that anything caused the earthquake other than natural processes. Now, by the way, Christians have to put natural evil in a particular category that means we look back to Genesis 3.
This is not God's intention is seen in the Garden of Eden, but after sin, well, you have the consequences and corruption of sin even now being experienced by the cosmos. And the Apostle Paul makes that very clear. The entire storyline of scripture makes that clear. But right now, we are looking at the fact that if you're going to blame someone for an earthquake, well, there is no human being to blame. There's no human source, and even on something like this, no one's saying that this was caused by climate change. Now, we're talking about an earthquake, but even as we're looking at natural evil explaining much of this, it doesn't explain all of this, and that becomes very clear as you look at what's going on politically right now, and in this case it's Turkey we're talking about more than Syria.
Syria's government is just an outright evil dictatorship, an autocracy. Turkey is a bit different. In Turkey, you have an electoral democracy, you have a presidency, you have an elected legislature. It is now becoming increasingly identified with Islam, and it does not operate according to democratic norms that might be insisted upon in a country such as Britain and the United States, but it still depends upon elections. And in that sense, it is in some form a constitutional and democratic society. And as you're looking at moral evil here, will that arises in this case because the government is responsible for some specific actions that have led to at least the staggering death toll in some cases now being experienced in Turkey.
So what did the government do? What are we talking about here in terms of the government and moral evil? Well, the government didn't schedule the earthquake. What it did was infect the entire system with a form of corruption, and that corruption often meant that buildings were not built to building standards and especially with earthquake standards in mind. And then there's a larger political context in which the current President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had actually gone to the very region, indeed one of the cities suffering most in this earthquake and had bragged about what he called an amnesty on building codes in order to build buildings faster.
Now, there is something to consider here just in terms of history. And a part of the history is that when Erdoğan came to power, he came to power largely by criticizing the previous regime for its failures to uphold building codes and other safety requirements leading to a massive death toll when an earthquake struck Istanbul itself. But now you're looking at statements made in 2019 when he was campaigning for reelection as president there in Turkey, in which he was bragging about suspending the building codes that led to the collapse of so many buildings and the deaths of so many people.
Now having been in that part of the country, I want to tell you how this works. When you look at a multi-story building, the way that building is built and engineered has a great deal to do with whether or not you're going to survive if you are in it in an earthquake. Now, one of the most frightening aspects of building failure in this case is what is known as pancaking. And so as you look at a multi-story masonry rebuilding, pancaking means that the upper stories begin to collapse and they just collapse the stories beneath them until you have a pancaking of the entire structure and you have the structure and everyone in it in a massive pile of deadly rubble.
The New York Times reports this way, "On the campaign trail in 2019, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey praised legislation that his political party had pushed through allowing property owners to have construction violations forgiven." That's the word amnesty that was used without bringing their buildings up to code. The next statement, "The move was risky In Turkey, a fault ridden land prone to earthquakes that had tightened those same codes to make buildings more tremor proof."
Now looking at that, the first distinction we make is between natural evil and moral evil. You don't blame someone for natural evil unless you're going to blame Adam. But the point is, there is no one to bring to justice. There is no one to accuse when it comes to this earthquake with such devastating effect in Syria and Turkey. But moral evil is something else, and moral evil is something that is particular to human beings. You don't blame the earthquake upon something like a dog's misbehavior or some kind of rampaging tiger.
No, human beings and human beings alone made in God's image, Christian understands, are capable of moral evil sometimes on a staggering scale. Now, it also points to something else. So the first distinction, natural evil versus moral evil. You don't put people in jail for natural evil, but you certainly do for moral evil, or at least you bring charges against them, but then you come to another distinction that's very, very important, and that is the distinction between societies that actually have honest political policy making and policing, and those that do not.
The strength and the moral culture of a society shows in just this kind of way. Now as you're looking at say, the Soviet Union, the follow the Soviet Union. As you think about communism in Eastern Europe, one of the most amazing things that was very commonly discussed when I was a young person was the fact that corruption was so bad that it was baked into the entire system. It was so bad that everyone eventually was corrupt. President Ronald Reagan used to tell the story this way when he was trying to explain the moral collapse of the Soviet Union, he talked about a man who every single day as he left work at the state owned factory, he was caught pushing his wheelbarrow with a load of contraband.
Every single day, the communist police, they saw him stealing the stuff in the wheelbarrow, and they took it from him every single day, and they gave him some kind of citation every single day. He did the same thing for many years. He pushed his wheelbarrow going out from work and was caught with stuff in the wheelbarrow he was stealing, they confiscated it. At the end of it all when he eventually retired, he was asked by the authorities, "Why did you try to get away with that every single day?" And the man said, "Oh, I did get away with it every single day I was stealing the wheelbarrows."
Now, in telling that story, the president was just underlining the fact that if you are in a society of such utter systemic corruption, well, everybody eventually becomes corrupt. There's virtually no way to negotiate in such a society without being involved in that kind of corruption. And so as you're looking at a comparison, our society has, well, let's just say a lot of corruption, but it is the intention of a regulated ordered society to try to restrict that corruption and frankly, to call it what it is, and then to combat it and to confront it and to adopt policies and elect leaders and judges and an entire system that will uphold righteousness and punish the evil doer.
So the first distinction was between natural evil and moral evil. The second distinction that's important for us to recognize is between cultures, cultures that tolerate corruption and indeed institutionalize it and cultures that do not, but there is a third distinction that needs to be made here, and that is between Turkey and Syria because even as you're thinking about Turkey, and yes, there is evidently a lot of corruption going on here, a lot of rule breaking, a lot of looking the other way.
And even in this case, a candidate running for reelection as president bragging about suspending prosecution to those who broke the building codes. We now know where that led, but still the third distinction after natural evil versus moral evil. And after looking at the distinction between societies that accept or build in corruption to the system, and those that at least in terms of policy and moral commitment seek to oppose it and to limit it. A third distinction is between any form of constitutional self-government, any form of ordered liberty and the totalitarianism of the dictatorship of the Assad regime in Syria.
Yes, government makes a difference. Right now, if you are a victim of this earthquake, it matters tremendously which side of the border between Turkey and Syria you are on. Does Turkey have problems? Yes, it does. But in Turkey, the people still have fundamental rights. And in Turkey, the people still determine ultimately by election who the leaders of their government may be. That means that there can be an actual political accountability in Turkey that is absolutely impossible in Syria. Modern Syria has been for a long time basically by the declaration of the United States government, a terrorist state. And furthermore, it is one of the most classic totalitarian regimes, virtually a criminal regime imaginable in the world today.
By the way, efforts to remove the Assad regime have led to a civil war which has further injured a nation that already has suffered so many injuries. But also looking across the Turkey, Syria border, you see a couple of other things. Number one, when this earthquake took place, who could respond to it faster? Syria or Turkey? The answer is unquestionably, Turkey. When this earthquake took place, foreign aids streaming from other countries, well, it could get into Turkey because Turkey is in this sense, a generally open country, and you had existing means of making that happen.
In Syria, forget it, nothing like that. There has been an incredible death toll in Syria simply because of the incompetence and evil of its government. Eventually, the government has allowed some forms of foreign assistance, but the fact is, you can't do that fast, you can't do that expeditiously. And let's be clear, when you're talking about an earthquake, fast matters. It's a matter of life and death. The Syrian situation is particularly devastating in this sense because we're talking about moral evil translated into a political regime that bear's an awful lot of the responsibility.
What Is Going On Up There?: The U.S. Government Shoots Down More Airborne Objects
But next we're going to shift back to the United States, just huge headline news about stuff being shot out of the sky.
And as we're looking at this, let's face it, it's a fascinating subject and there are huge questions related to this. Huge national security questions, huge intelligence questions, huge foreign relations questions, and just frankly, huge science fiction questions. Everybody wants to know what are these objects and what are they doing there? Now, of course, we know about the weather balloon, supposed weather balloon that we now believe was a surveillance spy balloon that was sent by China over much of North America, eventually shot down by the American military in American waters just off the coast of South Carolina. And we know there's a massive operation seeking to recover, especially the programmatic parts and the technological apparatus on that balloon.
There's also no question who sent the balloon. It was the Chinese government, likely the Chinese military. And in any question, under the direction of the people's Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party. There is no doubt what it was doing, it was surveilling. That is to say it was gathering intelligence. At this point, American officials have indicated that it was the likely purpose of this balloon to eavesdrop on conversations and communications. And yes, that can be a treasure trove of military intelligence, especially as the balloon was flying over indeed directed to linger over some of the most sensitive military installations in the United States.
That's an interesting point, at least some people in military intelligence are saying it probably could not take photographs a whole lot better than a satellite in the atmosphere. But what it could do is listen in a way a satellite could not. But then there was a second, and then there was a third, and then there was a fourth on February the 10th, an unidentified object shot down off of Alaska on February 11th, just the next day, another unidentified object in the atmosphere, in this case, flying in what was reported to be commercial airspace. Another one was shot down this by an American F-22 fighter over Canada with the cooperation of the Canadian government and military.
And then one day later, what is this now? A daily occurrence on February the 12th? Another unidentified object shot down over Michigan territory over Lake Huron. So as you're looking at that, you recognize evidently there's a lot of stuff up there. Now, there are a couple of interesting intersection points. Over the course of the last few years, there has been an increased military openness to discussing unidentified objects. Now, the popular parlance as UFO, Unidentified Flying Object, and of course, that lingo became popular in the United States with the assumption that that must mean some say space travel or something that was coming from another planet, but actually, unidentified flying object or now unidentified aerial phenomenon.
All of that refers to as something that can't otherwise be explained which is to say we don't know what it is, but as you're looking at this, you recognize the American people are demanding to know, the Canadian people also. And furthermore, you have citizens of other countries saying, "What exactly might be going on over our heads?" Now, in terms of worldview analysis, I want to make clear I have no inside information as to what these objects might be, but I do know there's some huge questions out there, and many of them are simply not being addressed in the mainstream media or in cultural conversation.
One of them has to do with the fact that if indeed we're talking about four objects shot down in this pattern in just a matter of days, it is unlikely that this is an entirely new phenomenon. And furthermore, there are only two options. Either one, the American government knew this, the American military was tracking this and just not talking about it or number two, the American military and intelligence didn't know about it. Now, an interesting note was made according to the second argument just yesterday when military authorities said that they hadn't been looking out for slow moving objects like this, that indeed the American defense and defense intelligence agencies had been long-term looking at the strategic threat of bombers and missiles, that's what they were looking for.
And by definition, bombers move fast and missiles move even faster and in different patterns in which you might be trying to track such things and prevent any devastation. But when it comes to slow moving objects, well, either the government is telling us the truth or not, either they really weren't looking for and thus didn't see many of these incursions, or they have seen it and they're not telling us, but that then leads to another big worldview consideration, and that is that we really don't know what these objects are. The American people, you understand the political pressure, you understand the intellectual curiosity.
We want to know what's going on. And as a matter of fact, when we look at our political leaders, they don't come off too well if they appear uninterested in what's going on. President Biden has seemed to be quite insufficiently concerned about these things. And as you're looking at the Sunday morning talk show, Senator Chuck Schumer, he's the democratic leader of the Senate as the Wall Street Journal editorial board, said he's about the last guy you'd send out to reassure anyone. And as the editorial board continued, "The Senate majority leader told ABC News on Sunday that the objects shot down on Friday and Saturday were likely also balloons." Likely also balloons, that's all we're going to be told?
As the editor said, Schumer "said he'd spoken to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, but Mr. Schumer seen mostly it pains to boast about the administration's response and claimed China had been humiliated because its surveillance balloon was shot down last week." But the editors of the Wall Street Journal are just saying this appears to be a bigger problem than can be explained by a Democratic senator just saying, "Hey, look, this is how well the administration has done, and China is embarrassed by all of this." Yes, but what are these objects and why are they there? And why did the American military not shoot them down sooner?
At least in the case of the first Chinese surveillance balloon, and what in the world's going on today? We're talking about developments in some cases now day by day by day, what in the world's actually going on up there? Now obviously, one concern about this is national security. That should be the main concern, but let's also face it, there's just a basic curiosity, and that leads to another issue of massive moral evaluation here, and that is that we will not know what these objects are, and we will not know what the meaning of all these things might be if the government doesn't decide to tell us unless someone independent of the government finds out.
So what are we talking about here? We are talking about the fact that when you have a government like the government of the United States of America, and we made very clear there's a huge distinction between governments committed to liberty and governments that are not, governments that are accountable and governments that are not, but here's what we need to know that in the name of national security, even governments that are accountable and even governments committed to liberty, well, you could count on the fact that they can't be counted on always to tell you the truth. And even if they tell you something, they're likely not telling you more than they are telling you.
‘The Truth Should Always Be Attended by a Bodyguard of Lies?’ We Will Likely Only Know What the Government Wants Us To About Unidentified Airborne Objects
Now as you're thinking about this, just recognize that a leader of the stature, Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, and in so many ways, the man who saved western civilization in the 20th century, the man who stared down Adolph Hitler, and of course, working with allies, including most importantly the United States, and eventually also the Soviet Union encircled Nazi Germany and eventually defeated it, it was Winston Churchill who in the name of defending liberty, and there was no greater champion of liberty in the 20th century.
He also said that when it comes to a time of war and national security, I'm not saying this is right, I'm just saying it's important to recognize Winston Churchill said, "The truth is so important that it must be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies." Now as Christians, we understand that the Bible makes very clear that we are not to lie, and we understand that as individuals, that's absolutely important, but we also need to be intellectually honest. We don't want our government, we don't want our military being honest to our enemies about what would make us more vulnerable.
So as you look at a fallen world, you can look at examples such as this. In the preparations for the D-Day invasion that would liberate Western Europe from Nazi tyranny, the American and British military and the allies together came up with intricate and complicated, eventually successful plans to mislead the Nazi military leadership about what allied intentions were. And this came all the way down to having one of the most powerful and famous American generals of all time, Georges Patton assigned to be the commander of what amounted to an artificial army complete with fake tanks and infantry equipment.
The tanks themselves made out of rubber inflated in order from the air when you had some kind of spy mission over England to mislead the Nazi military leadership about where the likely invasion of Western Europe was to take place, that is to say they placed on English soil patents, fake, massive invading force, complete with tanks. They had it placed considerably distant from where the actual invasion force was coming together, and that did successfully mislead along with other means of espionage and fake messaging to the Nazis which by the way included a 1943 operation known as Operation Mincemeat which was intended to mislead the Nazis about the allied invasion of Sicily, and it involved taking the body of a man found dead in the London streets, dressing him up as a naval intelligence officer with fake invasion plans and dropping his body where the Nazis would find him.
They thought they had scored a great intelligence victory when actually they were pulling out of the water, a man with fake invasion plans, and amazingly enough, the entire operation worked. Now, I mentioned that background just to say that the times now are no different in those terms than the times. Then with just a couple of interesting caveats, a couple of interesting footnotes that we need to watch. Number one, the average person in the United Kingdom or in America, or for that matter in Germany at the time had no access to independent knowledge, that might be a game changer in the current situation.
The American military might not actually want to tell us much about these objects shot down and about what the investigations find. To some degree, they're going to have to say something. They're going to have to satisfy the curiosity of the American people by saying something. There's going to be some plausible explanation given to oversight committees in Congress to the administration, and eventually to the American people. But the fact is, we need to keep in mind that in a fallen world, our government is never going to tell us everything. And oddly enough, we have to recognize that it is in our interest as a country that we not be told everything.
Over time, we come to know more, but there's something else, as I say, going on right now. Here's a caveat. What exists now that didn't exist during World War II or throughout the 20th century is that you now have private firms that have massive ability to do the surveillance and investigation that until recent times only governments could do. And so especially in Western nations, you have, well, something like SpaceX, you could go down the list. You have the opportunity and the reality now of massive satellite systems able to do the same kind of investigation, the same kind of eavesdropping that only governments could do. And for that matter, very few governments could do just a generation ago.
And so it just might be that the American people learn some of this by independent means from government. And in that case, we have to understand in closing that there is a gain and a loss for the cause of liberty. For the cause of liberty, it is good that the American people might know more than we would otherwise know or be told even by our own government, but on the other hand, there is a loss to liberty in terms of the Defense of Liberty because it might actually make it more difficult for our military to defend us if that kind of information gets out and does so in injury to our national defense.
So as Christians are thinking about this, we just need to understand the world around us is moral all the time, and there are worldview issues being revealed around us all the time. It's our responsibility to try to keep these issues very much in focus, both when we're looking at the headlines of the day, and increasingly when you step out the back door and look up at the sky.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.