The Mystery of Terrorism, Revealed

Cross posted at The Times of Israel.

When I wrote the other day about our dumbness before the phenomenon of terrorism – so often the wanton and random killing in large numbers of those who must by any non-self-justifying reason be considered innocents – I was invoking the mystery of the moral self that can rise to so horrendous an act. Most of us will never fathom it.

I hereby revise myself.

While I am no promoter of the “banality of evil,” the commonplace has its role. Evil, human evil, in its purest form surely is the vileness, the befoulment of human sympathy we imagine it to be. It is the general of the armies of moral ugliness, hatred, and corruption. But it has its privates, its clerks – its professors and attorneys too, like PR hacks and mob lawyers. It is so often, at the head of cutthroat guerrilla insurgencies in the jungle, some highly educated soul who lost himself in an idea, amid the complexity of ideas, and so chose the simple one, in order to clarify, of murder.

A couple of weeks ago at Electronic Intifada we had Linah Alsaafin‘s “How obsession with ‘nonviolence’ harms the Palestinian cause.” That is to say, as a magnification of the mind behind the work, not “concern” with nonviolence, but “obsession,” as if one were overly fixated on double-checking light switches or on pantyhose. Alsaafin is a young, recent college graduate – a major in English literature – born in Wales to Palestinian parents and mostly raised in the UK and the U.S., now living on the West Bank. According to her Twitter page‘s romantic ejaculation,

I starve myself for you to remain. I die for you to live. Stay with the revolution.

Having discovered, like some of her age and temperament, that the world began with her birth, and conflict – its intolerances and rationales, and the suffering they engender – truly, with her consciousness of them, Alsaafin writes at Electronic Intifada,

Nowadays, Israelis and internationals and unfortunately even some “enlightened” Palestinians champion “nonviolent resistance” and consider throwing a rock to be a violent act. The argument goes that throwing rocks tarnishes the reputation of Palestinians in the western world and immediately negates the “nonviolent/peaceful” resistance movement. This argument falls into the trap of western- (read, colonizer) dictated methods of acceptable means to resist.

Oppressed people do not and should not have to explain their oppression to their oppressor, nor tailor their resistance to the comfort of the oppressors and their supporters.

So we begin with stock, ideologically reductive, historically obscurantist renderings of the world, in which a single senseless sentence undoes all Alsaafin’s education and all the ground for any of the ideas in which she herself believes.

Then we move on to an even more highly educated and older voice, Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. Falk’s cognitive disability in the political area for which he was chosen by the UN to serve is well documented, and exemplified in detail by my analysis of the gross distortions of the Global Policy Forum, of which Falk is a former director. Relevant here is his further descent into ideologized cultural self-debasement and intellectual incoherence. Having read Alsaafin, by whom Falk feels instructed and further enlightened, he writes,

The posture of solidarity with the struggle of “the other” is more complex than it might appear at first glance. It seems a simple act to join with others in opposing severe injustice and cruelty, especially when its reality is experienced and witnessed first-hand, as I have for several decades in relation to the Palestinian struggle.


The witness of unwelcome truths should always exhibit a posture of humility, not making judgments about the tactics of struggle employed by those fighting against oppression, and not supplying the solutions for those whose destinies are directly and daily affected by a deep political struggle. To do otherwise is to pretend to be the purveyor of greater wisdom and morality than those enduring victimisation. In the Palestine/Israel conflict it is up to the parties, the peoples themselves and their authentic representatives, to find the path to a sustainable and just peace, although it seems permissible for outsiders to delineate the distribution of rights that follow from an application of international law and to question whether the respective peoples are being legitimately represented.


[Alsaafin] persuasively insists that for sympathetic observers and allies to worship at the altar of Palestinian non-violence is to cede to the West the authority to determine what are acceptable and unacceptable forms of Palestinian struggle. This is grotesquely hypocritical considering the degree to which Western militarism is violently unleashed around the planet to maintain structures of oppression and exploitation, more benignly described as “national interests”. In effect, the culturally sanctioned political morality of the West is indicative of an opportunistically split personality: nonviolence for your struggle, violence for ours. Well-meaning liberals, by broadcasting such an insidious message, are not to be welcomed as true allies.

Having, then, ceded the ground of reason and all ethical consideration to the calculus of grievance and rage – it is not explained how, other than by the whiteness Alsaafin invokes, or the Westernness that Falk does, one group’s victimized self-identification is weighed against another’s, preventing a free-for-all of unchallengeable forms of struggle – Falk confounds his tortured notions in incoherence. Now he asserts,

At the same time, there are some universal values at stake that Alsaafin does not pause to acknowledge. Two of these truths are intertwined in bewildering complexity: no outsider has the moral authority or political legitimacy to tell those enduring severe oppression how to behave; no act of violence, whatever the motivation, that is directed against an innocent child or civilian bystander is morally acceptable or legally permissible, even if it seems politically useful. Terrorism is terrorism whether the acts are performed by the oppressor or the oppressed, and for humanity to move towards any kind of collective emancipation, such universal principles must be affirmed as valid, and respected by militants.

Is it too redundant to state outright that this completely contradicts Falk’s previous paragraph above? Falk will contradict himself several more times as he closes, including this reversion, in opposition to the above.

We all need to remember that each struggle has its own originality that is historically, politically, and culturally conditioned, and the Palestinian struggle is no exception.

One need not wonder very much how this kind of thinking can produce the sense that anything is permissible – justified by the “historically, politically, and culturally conditioned,” in the name of the two-headed god of resistance and struggle.

What might be needed to complete this intellectual journey to terror? Only the answer to the question I posed above, about how to weigh competing claims. For this we need Glenn Greenwald, late, soon, of, on his way to an even more fitting home at the Guardian, in responding to the Burgas terrorism.

I have no idea who is behind the attacks. If it turns out to be Hezbollah and/or Iran, that will not shock me: after all, if it is perceived that you have sent hit squads onto a country’s soil to murder their nuclear scientists, it’s likely that the targeted nation will want to respond with violence of their own.

Embedded in this very brief but profound corruption of historical and moral review are two distinct failures of judgment. Greenwald first suggests a chain of events leading to Burgas, so that we not simplistically conceive of the bombing as an isolated and easily judged act of terror. It is a consequence, and thereby loses some weight of morally assignable blameworthiness. It is, you know, as always, understandable. (We ignore here that Greenwald’s whole post criticizes reliance on the unsubstantiated perception of Israel and the U.S. that Hezbollah and Iran were behind the attack, yet relies on a similar unsubstantiated perception – “if it is perceived” – to quasi-justify Burgas.) The chain of events is notably short, however, and stops at suggested Israeli acts. Could we trace a longer chain? Of course, we could, though Greenwald obviously wishes not to. So in the few links that Greenwald offers, the first and originally causative one is Israeli.

If, rather, we were to extract from those sentences a world-weary gesture toward the infinite regression of links and causes, the unending chain of grievance between opposing sides – as between Israel and the Palestinians – that seems always the foundation of irresolvable conflict, we could abandon the futile search for root fault and assess the parties in their present form. In that present form, too, Greenwald finds Israel wanting and Hezbollah and Iran just that uncertain step short of excusable we can call excuse-makeable.

Either way we consider the matter and the more general situation, Greenwald’s sympathies are not, as they never are, with Israel, even relative to Hezbollah and Iran. He observes the actors of the world in all of their worldly complexity and determines that Israel is one of the malevolent actors in it, whereas theocratic, anti-Semitic and repressive Iran is one of the state actors whose conduct needs to be understood – rationalized – in context. Greenwald does not actually sanction terrorist attacks; he simply understands their occurrence situationally. The situation is one in which Iran warrants our understanding and Israel does not.

Greenwald’s voice, then, is that of the lawyer, in these times most often prosecuting the Obama administration, while also making the defense attorney’s sympathetic plea before the jury for the perpetrators of mass-murder attacks. It is, rather, the passionate, youthful zealot, “starving” for her people, “dying” that they may live, who offers the intellectual rationale for murder and why no outsiders, including the  victims, have intellectual or moral standing to protest the justice of their ends. It is the aged professor, clinging to rhetorical habits, like a prayer recited by heart but in which all belief has been lost, who calls out weakly in his shame and doubt, ‘Thou shalt not kill,” but also, “We may not judge.”

And we have terrorism.


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