Can The Man Roundtable: Dirty Bombs, Islam, and Memetics.

Print This Post Print This Post




To many the idyllic state of Maine is famous for two things: Stephen King and lobster dinners.  Although back in December of 2009 a curiously underreported news story emerged from the small city of Belfast.  In a string of circumstances too bizarre for a Hollywood thriller, James Cummings was murdered inside his home where authorities stumbled upon an array of materials used to make a “dirty bomb.”  This device uses explosives like dynamite to disperse radioactive materials during detonation.  The devastation possible is drastically less than a standard nuclear missile but dangerous nonetheless.  This is a curious discovery that exposes cracks in our national security and opens the door for a deeper philosophical discussion into the human psyche.


James Cummings was the trust-funded son of a wealthy California landowner who bankrolled his yearly income of $10 million.  Cummings and his wife Amber reportedly moved to Maine in 2007 where their relationship took a bizarre turn.  Cummings was said to have physically, emotionally, and sexually abused Amber and, “Talked incessantly about his love of guns and his fascination for Hitler.”  Maine State Police were initially called to the Cummings home to in December of 2008 to investigate what they thought was a domestic homicide.


James Cummings wasn’t the village idiot making pipe bombs, or blowing off a finger with firecrackers.  The vast array of dangerous and expensive chemicals listed in the official report would make any nuclear scientist blush: “Four 1-gallon containers of 35 percent hydrogen peroxide, uranium, thorium, lithium metal, thermite, aluminum powder, beryllium, boron, black iron oxide and magnesium ribbon were found in the home.”  With his nearly unlimited bankroll Cummings could afford these rare chemicals, but it does not clarify why the discovery of these materials was mere happenstance in a country that spends a fortune on national security.  In an exhaustive article by Christopher Hellman the numbers show that the 2012 National Security budget was roughly $1.2 trillion.  How is it then that James Cummings managed to slip through very small cracks and evade capture?  The world changed after the horrible attacks on the World Trade Center.  The American response of fear and anger created a schism in society that has deluded millions into believing all terrorists are radical Muslim men hell-bent on wreaking havoc on American citizens.  We must be conscious of the fact that Al-Qaeda terrorists are not the only ones plotting to destroy American lives.  If this country is spending an exorbitant amount of money to fight terrorism overseas, why then is the threat of domestic terrorism vastly unknown?


An important idea tackled by George Orwell in 1984 is that a country must always have an enemy for the masses to rage against.  This very same control mechanism is prevalent in American society with our identification of the modern terrorist.  Let us consider a few enemies the collective American psyche has fought in the last thirty years like the various forms of Communism, Narco-Terrorism, and recently the Islamic radical.  The answer to this question is not clear but it is absolutely possible that the American government wants to keep citizens focused on one distinct enemy—even if they don’t pose the greatest threat to our safety.  It is obvious that this new generation of terrorism is a grave danger to society but it is equal parts distraction and conjecture.  By propagating endless coverage of a dissolving and deadly Middle East through the media it is easy to convince the American public that an increased defense budget is justifiable.  The enemy is out there, and we need money to go get them.  Two wars later are we any safer than we were in 2001?  You might be able to say yes, take airport security measures for example.  After 9-11 our fear of these Islamist extremists justified TSA x-ray screeners, full body searches, and countless other invasions of privacy.  By believing that the Jihadist is the only enemy we overlook numerous other threats to our well-being.


The human population is increasing at an exponential rate, making it easier for people like Cummings to evade the traditional measures of national defense.  Without question he should have been apprehended by authorities rather than murdered by his wife.  Much like the perpetrators of mass-shootings Cummings was possessed by the idea that causing irreversible harm to his fellow citizens was justifiable by the way he perceived society to be.  The American media and government has disillusioned the masses into believing that increased military action within the borders of countries like Iraq and Pakistan is necessary to protect our freedoms.  We are ultimately left with one of life’s greatest mysteries.  How can some ideas seem absolutely concrete to one individual, and predominantly farcical to another—and is either side of the argument worth dying for?


-Spencer Santilli-






When we think of memes, generally our thoughts go to off-color humor and advice giving animals on the Internet.  They are now a huge web phenomenon that allows people to paste captions into well-known images, making whatever statement they wish.  Despite this, the word meme also has an academic context that predates the Internet popularity of the word.  Famous secularist professor Richard Dawkins coined the term as a way of characterizing observable transfers within human culture.  The purpose of this scientific categorization is to be able to think about, “a unit of cultural transmission”, and the way that it may develop and evolve over time.  From a position of anthropology this is a way of looking at all of human culture, which is very abstract and broad, from a position more firmly footed in the hard-sciences.  It allows us to understand ideas and cultural traits the way we do species of ants, or birds.  This view is generally developed apart form traditional anthropological theory, and as such can be very useful for considering new ideas about human culture and society.


One of the reasons that memes interest so many people of different fields of thought is because of the vast potential for study of individual memes, or memetics.  This is a process that has applications in biology, philosophy, and journalism.  Dan Dennett of Tufts University candidly explains in his short TED speech the idea of dangerous memes.  Even without delving extensively into the complex philosophical implications of the theory, it is easy to understand Dennett’s idea.  He argues that there are a great many people who are ‘ruled” by dangerous memes, or dangerous ideas.


We can use the adjective dangerous to mean two things in this case.  Ideas can be physically or biologically dangerous to us if they threaten our survival. For example if your cultural or religious beliefs prohibit you from eating meat and you find yourself in a survival situation where only meat is available, that is a dangerous scenario.  That meme, that practice, that idea has become hazardous to your health.  Memes can also be cognitively dangerous in that they can poison the way we think, robbing us of our logic. People can become ‘hijacked’ by ideas that they did not develop using reason, which results in pervasive delusions in people all across the world.  If you are ruled by the idea that race is a viable method of discrimination against other people, your idea is wrong and can be falsified.  We know that there is more genetic diversity within racial groups than between them, and that skin color is determined only by distance from the equator and sun absorption.  That meme may have taken hold in someones mind however absurd it may be, and that means that it is very difficult to change.  Memes can be dangerous in either way.  They may be responsible for unpleasant conversations with coworkers, or they may have caused someone to fly a plane into a building.


Dennett tends to focus on the cognitive repercussions of dangerous memes, and concludes that there are in fact great majorities of people who live their lives ruled by ideas in the same way they might be infected by a flu virus.  I find this idea interesting in many ways, and believe that in today’s world we are all being threatened by memes that are both biologically and logically hazardous.  Fundamentalist Islam can be highlighted as an individual meme, as it is a set of ideas and practices that are followed in a range of ways but all of which are similar.  It is also a set of ideas and practices that can be used to justify things like misogyny, murder and global terrorism.  The important point to note about memes like this is that they are now reaching a level of global implication.  They have passed beyond the localized scope of concern.


They are flu-viruses that have become dangerous to everyone.  You could be a native living in the Trobriand Islands and have no idea what Islam is, and yet a nuclear holocaust has the potential to harm you.  Like the 1918 Spanish flu that killed 20 million people, these memes are resilient and in many cases contagious.  Offers that include 72 virgins and a front row seat in heaven appeal so greatly to human weakness….we can understand why they spread so easily.  If you really believe that killing yourself and others is the path to paradise, then terrorism is a logical choice.  These ideas are grand delusions that infect your mind exactly the way Dan Dennett describes.  When people believe that they are a justified in killing innocents, their ideology becomes the concern of everyone and it is unacceptable that we live in a world with people ruled by these idealogies.


Today we are already seeing a marked inrease in social maladies and individual psychoses.  We can ill afford to stand idly by while memes like fundamentalist Islam are seen as commonplace, and remain unchallenged by reason.  There are entire nations ruled by dangerous memes that wish destruction upon all those who think differently.  The most troubling thought in light of this is that now with only adequate financing and the appropriate state of psychosis, a single person can purchase materials to make a dirty-bomb.  While James Cummings was not a soldier in a global jihad, his case illustrates the same concern.  This was a man that believed in Hitler’s insane theories of racial dominance and global destruction, and clearly it was a cause he was prepared to kill for.


If we ignore the prevalence of dangerous memes, then we run the very real risk of putting our entire species in jeopardy.  In the past, you needed an army in order to impose your will on the rest of the world, now all you need is a bank account and the courage of your convictions.  When we consider this fact along with the prevalence of dangerous memes, we understand how dangerous the world has become.  In the case of memes like Fundamentalist Islam, there is nothing that we can do to change the minds of the fanatics.  These people are ruled by ideas that transcend any logical understanding of the world.  What we can do, is imbue the coming generations with reason and empathy, the vaccines to dangerous memes.


-J.A. Young-




[1] Dawkins, Richard.  The Selfish Gene.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.  1989.


[2] Dennett, Dan.  Dangerous Memes.  TED.  February 2002.


[3] Griffin, Walter. “Parts for ‘dirty bomb’ found in slain US man’s home.” 10, February, 2009. <>


Comments are closed.