an invited presentation to the International Studies Graduate Program at the University of Oregon
The Political Morality of Suicide Bombing
Nov. 15, 2007
This is a sketch, notes of the main points.
Need for a perspicuous analysis of ‘terrorism’ and ‘suicide bombing’, terms engulfed by oceans of conceptual confusion
Prefatory remark: On the evening of the day the Oklahoma City bombing took place, there were televised (Nightline, Charlie Rose) interviews of well known “experts”, almost all of whom assured us, with all the authority of a burning bush, that the perps were surely Arabs/Muslims. Similarly, and prior to empirical investigation, commentators on suicide bombings, including some with well known Progressive bona fides, were certain that the typical suicide bomber was expropriated, impoverished, humiliated and otherwise intensely oppressed and , as a result, psychologically afflicted.
In fact, extensive research reveals that the image of sbers as crazed cowards, religiously motivated brainwashed automata bent on senseless destruction, and afflicted with poverty and ignorance, is false. Sbers turn out to be as educated and economically well off as the surrounding populations. Some have been lawyers. And they have have no common “psychological profile”. What they do have in common is a situational context, best described in political and sociological terms. And the situation must be characterized in its detailed specificity. General terms, such as ‘poverty’ and ‘lack of education’, do not help to illuminate the historical situation of Palestinians. But these types of explanation are among the most often encountered in writing and discussion about sb. Here are some examples:
It is remarkable that people as disparate as George W. Bush and Desmond Tutu have concurred that eliminating “suicide terrorism” requires the elimination of poverty. Elie Wiesel and the Dalai Lama assure us that education is the way to eliminate sb.
This latter tack has been picked up and developed by the “rational choice” school of economists. Gary Becker, the most prominent of this school, has argued that the most reliable predictor of property crimes is the conjunction of poverty and lack of education. A significant number of economists have argued that this type of analysis can be applied to sb-ers.
In Becker’s incentive-based model, criminals are to be seen as rational individuals motivated by self interest. On this theory, individuals choose criminal activity if its reward exceed its opportunity costs, namely expected loss of income from legal activity, and the probability of detection and incarceration. Since most criminals typically lack skill and education (note the use of blue collar crime as typical of crime as such), opportunity costs are likely to be minimal. It is rational for sbers to conclude, then, that crime does indeed pay.
Like most rational choice theory, this analysis suffers from what Wittgenstein called “an insufficient diet of examples”. Violent crimes such as domestic homicide and hate killing do not lend themselves to explanatory theories based on economic opportunities. Neither does sb. As just noted, sbers are not lacking in legitimate opportunities relative to their general population. As the Arab press reiterates, if martyrs had nothing to lose, sacrifice would be senseless.
An alternative account of the motivation of sb-ers:
Sbers are motivated by, among other things, a sense of the near hopelessness of their abominable situation, and a need to demonstrate that -if you will pardon the expression- there is no such thing as a free lunch. Palestinians’ oppressors cannot enjoy the percs of domination for free: there is a cost, a terrible cost to be borne for the imposition of historical injustice, for forced political subservience, for ubiquitous humiliation and for the now-transparent objective of Israeli policy to effect the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland. The overwhelming sense of helplessness in reinforced in spades by Israel’s conspicuous projection of arrogant pride in its alleged invincibility: “There are no limits to what we can do to you, and you are utterly powerless to change this.”
The utter indifference of the so-called “international community” further intensifies the sense of powerlessness, frustration, betrayal and humiliation that makes suicide bombing seem the only alternative to acquiescence and total defeat. The same point put differently: the situation Palestinians find themselves in constitutes a challenge to the subject population to show that they can make a difference, for once in their lives, no matter what the cost.
All of this rather abstract description is made flesh in the story of Fatma al-Najar, a Palestinian grandmother in her sixties, who, exactly one year ago, chose to strap on a suicide belt and explode herself next to a group of Israeli soldiers invading her refugee camp. Why? Well, one of her grandsons was killed by the Israeli army, another is in a wheelchair after his leg had to be amputated, and her house had to be demolished. And all this was experienced in the context of the aftermath of Israel’s “withdrawal” from Gaza: agonizing months of grinding and worsening poverty, slow starvation, repeated aerial bombardments, and the loss of essentials like water and electricity. Every day under these conditions was spent under a cloud of generalized fear, with Fatma and her peers threatened by a largely unseen an malign force, and never knowing when arbitrarily inflicted death and mutilation might strike her , her loved ones or her neighbors. Fatma chose death and resistance over powerlessness and victimhood. Fatma’s siuation was, in its essentials, typical. (Large percentage of sb-ers with family members killed and/or maimed by Israeli forces)
The foregoing descriptions of the ubiquitous terror that characterizes daily life for Palestinians helps, I would hope, to foster an appreciation of the type of situation that can make sb appear the sole and therefore necessary alternative available to Palestians who do not embrace the alternative of total capitulation. As essential as these descriptions are, their significance cannot be fully appreciated without the identification of the central structural feature of the Palestinian situation, namely that these are a stateless people. Statelessness inflicts a political disability on Palestinians, an inherent and severe limit on the possibilities of legitimate, i.e. lawful, resistance.
3. Statelessness: popular misconceptions. Statelessness is not essentially about being without land, or being without “a place to call home.” Weber: to be stateless is to be without access to an institution which monopolizes the legitimate use of violence as a means of addressing injustices done to citizens.
If someone kills your child, you may not imprison her in your attic as a means of addressing an injustice. You report the alleged injustice to the State, which then deals with the accused within the justice system.
4. Thus, Palestinians are in fact structurally helpless in the face of injustices done to them. Statelessness mandates their passivity. By this I mean that statelessness disallows the only kind of resistance appropriate to the instruments of oppression they face, namely forceful, aggressive, yes violent resistance. For the entity that oppresses Palestinians is a racist and functionally colonialist State that has made it clear that it will negotiate none of the demands of its subject population, and that it has a strong penchant for the ongoing and superfluous use of its instruments of destruction.
Thus, the resort to violence is not driven merely by rage, resentment and the feeling of powerlessness. Bitter experience has taught Palestininns that non-violent or civil resistance/disobedience is in fact ineffective. Non-violent peace activists like Rachel Corrie (American), Ton Hurndall (British) and Gil Nima’ati (Israeli) met with death by IDF forces who knew exactly what they were doing. And I’ll wager that few know the names of the hundreds of Palestinians who were murdered during non-violent demonstrations. In spite of all this, the statelessness of Palestians dictates that they may not “take matters into their own hands”. For Palestinians to take the measures that would normally be taken by a State whose citizens are treated by an enemy power as Palestinians are treated by Israel is termed “terrorism”. In the absence of a state to protect their interets, Palestinians find themselves in the following unenviable position: irrespective of what is done to them, the only legitimate responses are passivity (peaceful resistance) or reliance on the kindness of strangers. And the response of the (fictitious) “international community” to the Palestinians’ plight makes it clear that the former are in effect strangers to Palestinians, and not at all kind strangers. Illegitimate response, then, becomes the only alternative to embracing defeat.
It is worth noting the peculiarity of the use of ‘illegitimate’ in this context. Private or non-state violence is called illegitimate against the background of the assumption that State action is available. (Recall my example of your imprisoning your child’s murderer in your attic.) But in the remarkable case of a people without a State, the normal distinction between legit and illegit behavior has no application. This is a conceptual point. Inquiring into the legitimacy or illegitimacy of sb in this context is comparable to asking how many field goals were scored in the last Seattle Mariners game.
The above paragraph: we must conclude that the evaluation or assessment of sb cannot take place within the standard framework for evaluating violence as a political instrument. More on this below.
5. Israel provokes sb: I have so far suggested that sb is woven into the unique situation that Palestinians find themselves in in a distinctive way. Statelessness, in conjunction with the massive military power and unbridled ruthlessness and sadism of the Israelis, makes sb the only politically effective means of resistance to Israeli oppression.
But there is more. In discussions of sb, there is almost always the assumption that sb is of course despised by Israelis. But this apparent truism requires qualification. It is not the case that sb is no part of Israeli policy. Israelis must be disaggregated into the Israeli leadership on the one hand, and the Israeli masses on the other. The latter fear and despise sb. The former employ it cynically as part of the Israeli State’s efforts to scuttle opportunities for peaceful negotiation. The Israeli leadership not only counts on sbs, it has actively provoked them.
My colleague Steve Niva has shown that there is a virtually infallible predictor of a sb: whenever Israel assassinates a senior commander or military leader of a militant group. This predictor is most reliable when the assassinations take place during negotiations with these groups for a truce on attacks on Israelis, or when the assassinations break longstanding cease-fires by these groups. Examples (mostly from Niva):
- On 11/02/94, Israel assassinates Islamic Jihad’s local leader
Hani Abed in Gaza. The promised wave of sbs ensues.
- Israel assassinates Islamic Jihad’s founder Fathi Shikaki on 10/28/95. Sbs follow.
This pattern became more frequent and predictable after Ariel Sharon became PM in 02/01. Sharon escalated the assassination campaign against leading Palestinian militants, focusing on periods during which militant groups were either negotiating or actually upholding cease-fires on attacks on Israeli civilians.
- Israel assassinates 2 leading Hamas commanders in Nablus on 07/31/01, 2 months into a Hamas cease-fire on civilians. Less than 2 weeks later there is a Hamas sb in a Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem. This was Israel’s first high level assassination of a senior Hamas political leader.
- Israel assassinates senior Hamas militant Mahmud Abu Hanoud on 11/23/01, while Hamas was adhering to an agreement not to attack targets inside Israel following the attacks of 9/11. One week later there are Hamas sbs in Jerusalem and Haifa.
- Israel assassinates leading Hamas militant Raed Karmi on 1/14/02, in the middle of a cease-fire declared by all the militant groups in late December. Less than 2 weeks later there is a sb retaliation.
- In July 2002, it is widely reported that a unilateral cease-fire declaration by Hamas and the Fatah-linked Tanzim will be announced on July 23rd. On that same day, and before the anticipated announcement of the cease-fire, Israel successfully attempts an assassination on the senior Hamas military leader Salah Shehada by an air attack (dropping a one-ton bomb) on a crowded apartment block in Gaza City. Shehada is killed, along with 15 civilians, 11 of them children. Less than 2 weeks later Hamas retaliates with a sb.
- In late December, 2002, representatives from Hamas, Fatah and other groups were meeting in Cairo to formulate a cease-fire on Israeli civilians intended to last at least through the Israeli elections on 01/28/03. In the middle of these cease-fire negotiations Israel assassinates 3 prominent members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade. The latter group responds with a sb less than 2 weeks later.
- On 06/10/03, the attempted assassination of the top political leader Abdul Aziz Rantisi just as Hamas was negotiating a truce with the Palestinian authority as part of the U.S. sponsored Road Map process was followed within 12 hours by a suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem that killed 16 Israelis.
- On 03/22/04 Sharon has the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Yassin, assassinated. The inevitable followed.
The assassination of Yassin took place with the Israeli leadership’s full knowledge that an assassination of a senior leader of a Palestinian militant group inevitably results in a rash of sb attacks on Israeli civilians. In a widely cited article from November 25 2001, Alex Fishman, the conservative military commentator for one of Israel's leading newspapers Yediot Aharanot, noted that "Whoever decided upon the liquidation of Abu Hanoud knew in advance that [a terrorist attack inside of Israel] would be the price. The subject was extensively discussed both by Israel's military echelon and its political one, before it was decided to carry out the liquidation."
Israel must be regarded as one of the agents of the sds. This makes the following statement by Hamas, immediately following the killing of Yassin, literally true: “Today Ariel Sharon ordered the killing of hundreds of Zionists in every street, city and centimeter of the occupied lands.” That most of these assassinations take place when Israel is under pressure to respond to the cease-fires with a corresponding show of sincere intent by cooperating in the furtherance of the (fictitious) “peace process” only underscores both Israel’s rejection of a peaceful settlement of the Palestine issue and Israel’s (share of) responsibility for the pattern of suicide bombings.
This view has been stated in the Israeli press. Writing in Ha’aretz (January 21, 2002) the journalist Danny Rubeinstein claimed that "Israel's assassinations today generate far more damage than the benefits they are supposed to bring...it can be said explicitly this time that Karmi's assassination has already and directly cost the lives of the ten Israelis who died in last week's murderous terrorist attacks" (emphasis added) The use of ‘directly’ here is an assertion that Israel is an agent of sbs, and accordingly shares at least some of theresponsibility for sbs.
It is worth noting that those who condemn the agents of sb never include among the latter the Israelis themselves. Were they to do so, the condemnation of suicide bombing would have to entail the identification and condemnation of Israel’s interest in perpetual conflict. The debate re sb would no longer be a discussion merely about Palestinian behavior. That Israel needs sbs in order to rationalize both its ongoing brutalization of its indigenes and its attendant efforts to ethnically cleanse Israel of Palestinians is frankly acknowledged in a scathing August 2, 2002 editorial in Ha'aretz following the assassination of Shehada in Gaza City. Doron Rosenblum declared that "In short, any four-year-old child who examined this pattern of events would conclude that this government, whether consciously or not, is simply not interested in the cessation of the terrorist attacks, for they constitute its raison d'etre".
Writing in Ha’aretz (January 21, 2002) the Israeli journalist Danny Rubeinstein claimed that "Israel's assassinations today generate far more damage than the benefits they are supposed to bring...it can be said explicitly this time that Karmi's assassination has already and directly cost the lives of the ten Israelis who died in last week's murderous terrorist attacks"
And many more examples can be added to the list since then.
What these Israeli critics recognize is that not only has Israeli policy sealed the death warrants for dozens of Israelis in the expected attacks to follow, but that Israel has also systematically derailed any attempts to reduce violence. Assassinations have only served to embolden and empower the militant groups.
In effect, the Israeli leadership appears willing to sacrifice Israeli lives in order to provide a rationale for its relentless efforts increasingly to colonize Palestinian lands with Israeli settlements and to dismantle Palestinian society so that Palestinians will finally decide to leave their homeland forever. Suicide bombings have become a crucial pretext for enabling the brute force and violence needed to achieve these objectives.
6. Let us turn now to the manifold confusions infecting our ability to identify the precise content of the concepts of sb and terrorism.
The notion of sb is situated within a webwork of related concepts: resistance, violence, innocent vs. culpable, self-defense, and, perhaps most importantly, intention.
The precise configuration of these and related concepts is much, but not all, of what we are looking for when we seek clarity re the political morality of sb.
Discussions around this issue invariably hinge on the moral and political relevance of intention in the evaluation of suicide bombing. The claim is always heard that it is the intentions of sb-ers that crucially distinguishe sb from less objectionable ways of killing innocents.
I will argue that almost everything that is said about the moral and political relevance of intention in connection with the evaluation of sb is wrong.
Let us begin with the position of the typical critic of sb. This is a non-pacifist who accepts violent resistance in certain circumstances, but who rejects sb tout court as an acceptable form of such resistance.
What sort of violent resistance might our critic have in mind?
It has been suggested by opponents of sb that an acceptable form of violent resistance would be aggression against, i.e. the killing of, settlers and members of the IDF.
But this requires I) access to effective weaponry, and 2) an astute s and respected leadership. Palestinians have neither. They are entirely on their own.
7. Many who concur with this conclusion would nonetheless objest to sb. But why?
Considerations of body count carry no weight. Sb kills far fewer innocents than conventional (i.e. strategic – explain) warfare.
The above merits serious reflection. Strategic war, whose agents deliberately kill far more innocents than sb , provokes much less intense reactions than does sb. There is an implicit moral and political assumption at work here that needs to be identified. The assumption claims an alleged morally and politically relevant difference between the deliberate killing of innocents in conventional strategic warfare, and the intentional killing of innocents in sb.
8. My immediately preceding speculation re the exact nature of the allegedly significant difference between conventional war and sb suggests what the non-pacifist critics of sb have in mind: the distinction between the deliberate killing of the innocent and the intentional killing of the innocent.
What are we to make of this distinction? Nothing much, I shall argue. But first let us clarify the alleged difference between these 2 ways of taking innocent lives – deliberately and intentionally.
9. It is definitive of conventional or strategic war than it is known to the warmakers that innocent lives will be taken. But, it is said, the killing is not intended to include the innocent, who are to be regarded as collateral damage. Yes, it is known in advance that innocents, often many ionnocents will die, but the commanders wish this were not so. If they could achieve their aims without killing innocents, they would. But they couldn’t, so they don’t. Because their intention is not to kill innocents, these casualties are a necessary evil, like the pain that attends the extraction of a bad tooth. It follows, we are told, that the killing of innocents, as an unavoidable by-product of an otherwise morally good act, is not morally culpable.
We are next assured that it is otherwise with sb. The killing of innocents is the direct aim of the latter’s act. There is no question here of collateral damage.
10. In the entire discussion of sb, this is surely the toughest conceptual nut to crack. The issue presents itself to very many discussants as a no-brainer resting on the most transparent and indubitable of moral axioms. How, the critics ask, can one equate the intentional slaughter of innocents, in the World Trade Center or on a Bus in Haifa, with the unintentional and regretted killing of civilians by Israeli forces in the occupied territories or by U.S. forces in Iraq?
Certain types of situation come to mind when we try to clarify the role of intention in excusing acts which, were intention not taken into account, would appear to be culpable. This type of situation is held to be exemplary in the sense that it both illuminates the claim made by those who take intention to be decisive in justifying the unqualified condemnation of sb-ing, and it illustrates a moral principle about which all parties to the sb debate are in agreement. The type of example I refer to usually goes as follows: I secretly hook up the reading lamp in John Foster’s study such that when it is turned on a nearby children’s hospital is destroyed by hidden explosives. John turns on his lamp and the hospital is thereby caused to explode. But, the story goes, we do not blame John for the death and destruction because he did not intend to blow up the hospital; he merely intended to turn on a light. Similarly, collateral damage is not intended by commanders, so they are as innocent as Foster. But sb-ers do intend to kill innocents, so they may not avail themselves of the exculpating argument available e.g. to U.S. commanders in Iraq.
I present this screamingly fallacious example only because I have encountered it so often. What exculpates Foster is not his intention but the fact that he did not know, nor could he have been expected to know, that switching on the light would result in the destruction of the hospital. Strategic warmakers cannot avail themselves of this consideration: they know full well that innocents will die, and they don’t care, i.e. this foreknowledge does not motivate them to refrain from the bombing.
11. “the… regretted killing of civilians..”
What is the force of ‘regretted’ here? Perhaps that if the IDF or the U.S. Army could accomplish their aims without killing civilians, they would. But if Palestinians could kill IDF forces at checkpoints as easily as they as they can effect a sb –and incidentally, effecting a sb is not all that easy- they would. But that’s not possible. So they fight as they can.
And what is the moral significance of regret in this case? Regret is a state of mind. Can a mental state make for a morally relevant difference between the actions in question? W hy think so? What makes an action right or wrong is what it does, its consequences. (And this does not commit me to the theory of Utilitarianism.)
The critic of sb may have in mind the distinction in the law between accidental and premeditated killing. But this distinction does not mark a relevant difference between sb and strategic warfare. For when killing civilians is both expected, as it is in conventional war, and insufficient to deter the attack, the death of civilians may not be termed accidental. According to the law, an action taken with some other purpose in mind but with the knowledge that a death will result is no less culpable than an action taken with a purpose to kill.
Thus, when the law considers these 2 actions, 1) blowing up an airplane in order to defraud an insurance company by destroying a forged painting, and 2) blowing up an airplane in order to kill one of its passengers, it classifies both actions as murder. That the bomber regretted the fact that innocent passengers had to die in the first example is irrelevant to the fact that he is guilty of murder.
Now imagine that the bomber expresses regret, and then…. does the same thing over and over and over again! The claimed regret is an idle wheel.
12. This illustrates the principle that we judge the moral status of an action by what it does/will do, or, more precisely, by what it can be reasonably expected to do. On this principle, there is no significant difference between what a U.S. soldier does when he fires a missile into a house said to have insurgents in it, and in the process kills the innocents there also, and what a Palestinian woman does when she carries a bomb onto a bus in Tel Aviv in order to kill innocents and herself. (I do not mean to imply that insurgents are not innocent. I am merely engaging the critic on his own terms.)
In general, to intend to do something that has the foreseeable consequence of many deaths, and not to be deterred from action by virtue of that foreknowledge, is functionally equivalent, for moral purposes, to intending those consequences. If the consequences include the death of innocents, then the agent intends the death of innocents, in this sense: he knows that the deaths of innocents will occur, and this knowledge is not sufficient to motivate him to refrain from, e.g. the bombing.
A related consideration: Think of the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths during the allied firebombing -actually terror bombing- raids on German cities during the Second World War. It rings preposterous to claim that the President did not intend those deaths. Of course he intended them. The idea was to make it clear to the enemy regimes that their own people would suffer the consequences of the former’s misdeeds, and to intimidate and demoralize the citizenry and thereby weaken its support of its regime. And this might motivate the citizenry to encourage its regime to surrender. But who sheds a tear for those civilians?
Mainstream thinking has it that these deaths were tolerable in view of the commendable ends towards the achievement of which they were a means. To the extent that anyone condones the deliberate killing of innocents for higher purposes, and just about everyone does, then the unqualified denunciation of sb is at best inconsistent, and at worst hypocritical.
13. To put it differently: what the critic seems to believe is that what makes an action right or wrong is what a person would do instead if he had more choice. But example after example shows this to be incorrect. Who cares what the perp tells himself or others is his real goal, what he really intended? And we care less what the perp chooses to ignore or put out of his mind when he seeks to identify the morally significant features of the situation in question. In these and comparable cases, what might be occuring between the temples of the commander is entirely irrelevant to the morality of his actions.
14. And there are psychological, but equally irrelevant, features of the situations under discussion that mistakenly lead some to want to distinguish the examples in question. E.g. the sb-er sees her victims, looks them in the face, and goes ahead anyway. The bomber pilot does not see his victims. This is a fact about the personal experience of the 2 killers. Does anyone really think that a fact about the personal experience of the 2 people makes a difference to right and wrong? If so, that person will be obliged to embrace implications that strikingly contradict some of his most foundational moral convictions. E.g. if this kind of difference in personal experience could make the difference between right and wrong, then killing more innocents horrifically but out of sight would be less wrong than killing fewer innocents in sight. All you’d need is a long-range rifle to make your killing less wrong. Is our critic prepared to swallow this reductio? He will choke himself to death.
15. If the foregoing analysis is correct, then it is clear that a Congress that orders or enables a high probability of thousands of innocent deaths is more culpable than someone who with certainty produces a few (like, e.g. the sb-er). The U.S. Congress is far more culpable than all combined sb-ers.
16. The critic may at this point shift ground: what makes sb wrong is that it is not likely to succeed in achieving its goals. Sb turns people off who might otherwise align themnselves with the project of Palestinian liberation. And it has not diminished the suffering of Palestinians.
There is an element of truth in this objection, and I will address it in my concluding remarks. But let us be clear that the goals of sb are many and different in kind. It is clear that some of these goals have indee been achieved by sb. Here are some of them:
- to show that the Israeli State is illegitimate, because it does not promote the security of its citizens; in fact it diminishes Israelis’ security
- to increase the emigration of Jews from Israel
- to decrease the immigration of Jews to Israel
- to render Israel the least safe place in the world for Jews
- compelling U.S. and French troops to leave Lebanon in 1983
- prompting Israeli forces to leave Lebanon in 1985
- inducing Israeli forces to quit Gaza and the West Bank in 1994 and 1995
- the aim of the Tamil Tigers to win major concessions from the Sri Lankan government in 1990 and beyond
- to demonstrate the determination of continued resistance
- to provide solace for thiose who have lost their loved ones
You may notice that I have omitted from my list of aims the one identified by Nicholas D. Kristof in an 08/04/04 NYT Op-Ed as the principal goal of Palestinian sb-ers, namely the desire to be welcomed by 72 virgins in heaven. A good number of suicide bombers have been women. Apparently, Kristof believes them to be lesbians. And how would he know that?
17. I mentioned above that there is some truth to the claim that sb is unacceptable because of the de facto negative reactions it produces in many observers who might otherwise align themselves with pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist tendencies. I wish to use this as a segue into my concluding remarks on Politically Tragic Situations.
To my mind it is indisputable that the most effective response to Israeli occupation and terror would be organized armed response to e.g. settler populations and the IDF. Some form of guerilla warfare. This kind of resistance requires a unified movement with astute and democratic leadership. But at present Palestinians are without leadership and of course without a State which could respond to its citizens’ oppression with the legitimate use of force/violence.
Thus, there seem to be, at the present conjuncture, but 2 alternatives available to Palestinians: either to resist peacefully, which means, in the absence of well led organization, passively accepting Israeli oppression, or violent resistance lacking the features such force might have were it organized under effective leadership. The first alternative would have no effect on the Israeli leadership, which is happy to murder the helpless and peaceful. The second alternative plays into the hands of Israel, sacrifices the innocent and turns off the typical newspaper reader. At the same time, remember, it does achieve some of the important goals listed under 16 above.
So the existing situation leaves Palestinians with 2 unacceptable choices. This is not to counsel defeatism or cynicism. It is simply to point out that the denunciation of sb on moral grounds or on the grounds that it is counterproductive evinces a type of abstract judgement that is philosophical in the bad sense: it suggests a judgement made in a political and historical vacuum. For if the condemnation of sb is made on moral grounds and left at that it is utopian. If it is put forward on pragmatic grounds, i.e. with the (correct) observations that 1) it plays into the hands of the bad guys, and 2) there is a possible -in the abstract- alternative in guerrilla warfare, it is still utopian and… addressed to no one! After all, we do not put our answers to what-is-to-be-done questions forward as philosophical theses based on timelessly rational principles and addressed to the political equivalent to Mr. Spock.
As serious Progressives we have an audience, a constituency in mind. Re political practice, we imagine our positions re desirable courses of political action to be addressed to a movement and its leadership. But Palestinians are without both of these necessary conditions for the realization of the goals required by the current situation. So there is something unmindful about urging Palestinians to refrain from the only kind of available gesture that displays that they cannot be treated, with impunity, like sub-humans. (Like “2-legged cockroaches”, to quote a familiar Zionist metaphor).
18. I conclude that sb can be neither unqualifiedly condemned, nor categorically endorsed. That Palestinians face equally objectionable alternatives suggests that Palestinians are up against a classic tragic situation. As things stand now, neither of the alternatives facing Palestinians can be unequivocally recommended. Yet they do not have the option of suspending choice. They must opt for one unacceptable alternative or the other. This is a classical Greek tragic dilemma. Think of Antigone. In her role as a sister, she must bury her brother; in her role as a citizen -where citizenship is, unlike what is the case in an individualistic culture, constitutive of her very identity- she must not, according to Creon’s decree. Whatever she does will be wrong. To advise her to “Do the Right Thing” would be shallow and uncomprehending. There is no Hollywood closure.
This is a situation that is not historically rare, and is a conspicuous feature of the human condition. But it has received little or no analytical attention from historians and political theorists. History is replete with politically tragic situations, which require of the agents in question a very different kind of thinking. For example, whether or not no accede to the terms of Brest-Litovsk was a tragic choice for the Soviets. Damned if they did, damned if they didn’t. The same for Sartre’s politico during the Nazi occupation: he appreciates and identifies with the powerful reasons for joining the active resistance. But to do so, he would be unable to continue as the sole caretaker for his aged and ill mother. He must either reject his instinct to become an active agent of resistance, or he must abandon his mother. Non datur tertium. But either choice has unacceptable consequences. This fact about the Palestinian situation must inform any analysis of that issue. What kind of thinking is appropriate here? That is not a rhetorical question.
19. I am convinced that progressives feel the need to unqualifiedly condemn suicide bombing for Public Relations reasons. We imagine ourselves in a public debate with a defender of Israel’s general policies. The latter asks “Do you or don’t you absolutely and unqualifiedly condemn all forms of intentional violence, commited toward the furtherance of political objectives, against the innocent, the civilian population?” We are being asked whether we condemn terrorism, which is defined by all, including the U.S., as the deliberate killing of civilians in order to accomplish political ends. We say, “No I don’t, because…” “So you refuse to condemn suicide bombing, the intentional killing of innocent non-combatants??!!” Or, more often “So you endorse suicide bombing, the intentional killing of innocent non-combatants??!!” And like that. We don’t want to be perceived as soft on the deliberate killing of innocents. And public platforms are not conducive to the careful elaboration of complex and sustained lines of reasoning. So we cave in. We say that we do in fact condemn suicide bombings, and without qualification. I have argued that this position is, upon reflection, indefensible.
[Might this not be another politically tragic situation? I suspect not. Too much is at stake in accepting the common intuition that collateral damage is qualitatively different from sb killing. I say we must have the courage of (what should be) our convictions, and take it upon ourselves to defend the truth, as very difficult this is in this case.]
19. Karl Marx was a man who found it not easy to impose a healthy degree on material order in his everyday life. But there were some routines that Marx adhered to consistently over the course of his adult life. One of them was this: he made a point of reading all of Greek tragedy through -about 9 plays- in the original Greek, every year.
Alan Nasser is Professor emeritus of Political Economy and Philosophy at The Evergreen State College. His book, The “New Normal”: Persistent Austerity, Declining Democracy and the Globalization of Resistance will be published by Pluto Press in 2013. If you would like to be notified when the book is released, please send a request to email@example.com
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