Terrorism and war

Hamas, as you have probably heard by now, swept the Palistinian elections in a surprise victory. Hamas is, for those who really don't follow regional politics at all, a hard-line anti-Israeli party and one that supports or has supported terrorist acts. (I'm being fuzzy since you can hardly say a word about the Israeli/Palistinian conflict without stepping on something that someone wants to argue with. Suffice it to say that they're closely associated with the Bad Guys in the standard US portrayal of the conflict.)

There is much hand-wringing about this, including an ironically amusing statement from the US President that he doesn't see how Hamas could be legitimate participants in the Arab/Israeli peace process. Given that they're now the legitimate government of Palestine, one wonders just what that means.

Anyway, listening to the hand-wringing and the denunciations of terrorism got me started on an essay that I'd been thinking about for a while. It was going to be a journal post, but then it got far too long, so now it's an essay on my web site. This is the best I've been able to explain why the constant denunciations of terrorism feel problematic to me.

Posted: 2006-01-26 19:33 — Why no comments?

In re your essay:

You forget one crucial thing. Not only would the Israelis beat the Palestinians in a fair fight. They would beat them in any fight. You're right, of course, that presently we live in a neither-or situation. The Palestinians take on the Isralis with terrorism while the Israelis take on the Palestinians in a more-or-less fair fight.

This the Israelis have allowed only because the Palestinian Authority has proclaimed to play by the rules (again more-or-less). Consider what will happen now that the Hamas is the PA. There will be no more excuses for the Palestinians. They have chosen the rules for their fight. Just pray to God that the Israelis won't take them up on it.

For all your talk about power structures, it seems to me incongrous that you conclude that the rules of fair fights are meant to protect the people in power. That's not the case. They're meant to protect the people who lose. As long as the losers play along, they are relatively safe from harm.

The problem is not that the rules of fair fighting protect the powerful. The problem is that when the losers play by other rules, they set themselves outside the rules, making it possible for The West to win only by playing by their rules.

In this whole terrorism thing the thing to fear is not that those terrorizing us will win. They never will. They are weak and savage and I predict that any fight fought by any rules will be lost for them. The thing to fear is that we will win. I fear we will soon find out whether this patina of civilization we cling to in insisting on fair fights is more important to us than winning is.

Posted by Peter (Denmark) at 2006-01-27 15:05

Well, I didn't conclude what you seem to think that I concluded. The rules aren't only to protect the winners, or only to protect the losers. They're intended to limit the damage of war, period. That means both the winners and losers. I said that explicitly. The point of the rules is to protect the rest of the society from the war and limit the action of the war to a somewhat artificial battlefield.

I think you've also again jumped into the question of who's right and who's wrong, which isn't what I'm talking about here. The point that I'm making isn't about the morality of terrorism; it's about why someone would support terrorism. It's about feeling like one has other options than surrender. It's about how people behave when backed into corners.

Regardless of the morality or merits of any side of this, I think it's important to understand the psychology of why people support terrorism, and repeating that it's horrible and awful doesn't do anything at all to resolve the problems that give rise to it. In other words, all that moralizing about terrorism does is make us all feel superior and supports our own moral code. It doesn't accomplish anything. That statement has nothing at all to do with whether it's right or not.

So yes, I'm not disagreeing with you that terrorism risks more. However, wanting not to feel helpless is a powerful force, and people are willing historically to risk a great deal to not feel helpless. If we don't allow some path that lets them not feel helpless without terrorism, we shouldn't be surprised that they turn to terrorism.

Posted by eagle at 2006-01-27 15:41

Certainly, people who are in a powerless situation are more inclined to become terrorists because their situation is hopeless. Certainly, that is true. But I don't think that anyone who has read a newspaper in the last 16 years has not heard the explanations for terrorism that you claim to narrowly iterate here.

My understanding of your essay, coupled with your introductory quote from Robinson led to me to conclude that you were viewing The West as having set up inherently unjust rules by which they judged the Palestinians.

Personally, I just can't see how that's the case, and it was that to which I was reacting. I am inclined to agree with you that the Palestinians are indeed conducting terrorist operations for the reasons you've stipulated (plus one: their religion, but that's a rather touchy subject) but I just think that we have to keep in mind that the reason they're not losing is that the same Judeo-Christian values that created the Rules of War restrain the Israelis from wholesale slaughter and/or deportation of the Palestinians. If we don't try to get both parties to agree to the same rules, the game is that there are no rules and whoever is left standing wins.

So if we want the Israelis to keep being patient we have to remind them that they are the good guys. They play by the rules. God (The Almighty, The Lord of Locusts) will be very displeased if they don't try one more time.

At the same time we have to keep the Palestinian leadership focused on the rules of the game they're playing and be firm with them when they break the rules.

Or we have to find a new set of rules. But in a game of two players with no rules where one player is mightier that the other, who gets to set the rules?

So, condemning terrorists as "immoral, evil, inhuman monsters" is in my mind a rather important part of the puzzle, a position with which Mr. Arafat, the black hole of promises, implicitly agreed when he signed the Oslo accords which was an attempt to find an amiable solution to the problem.

Posted by Peter (Denmark) at 2006-01-28 15:49

Hmm... whether I think we've set up inherently unjust rules depends on how you want to define just. We're judging the Palestinians by a set of rules that require them to find a powerful ally or always lose in any conflict that is settled by force. Are those rules inherently injust?

Kind of an interesting question. I have a hard time evaluating that question without factoring in the bottomless US support for the Israeli army that creates a large part of this picture.

The more I think about it, the more interesting the word "just" becomes in this context. It clearly doesn't mean "equal chance of winning." I think you're using it to mean "abides by larger humanitarian concerns outside of this particular conflict," which is a perfectly reasonable definition. However, the humanitarian situation in Palestine doesn't look great, and Israel isn't helping. If it weren't for terrorism, would Israel not treat the Palestinians the way that it does? I'm not sure. It's almost an irrelevant question, though; it's like asking whether the Sahara would be hot if it weren't covered in sand. The circumstances are not that easily separable.

The point that I'm making is a little different, I think. I'm not saying that we're judging the Palestinians by just or unjust rules. I'm saying that we're judging them by our rules, and those rules look to them to be stacked. That doesn't make our rules bad; it does change the dynamic and it does explain why the Palestinians would turn to organizations that give them a sense of power.

Incidentally, two other points: The concept of limited warfare and rules of war predate Jesus Christ and are certainly not a creation of Judeo-Christian values, although recent evolution of them is, of course, linked to the prevailing religions of the states that have developed them. And, sadly, the things that I'm talking about here are not widely discussed by the US news media. I think I may be making a more obvious point to you because you have the benefit of superior European news coverage. The US news media presentation of the entire Arab/Israeli conflict is far more shallow.

Posted by eagle at 2006-01-28 16:04

Regarding the Palestinians, it seems to me that they have already lost. I mean, their side has won no war in Israel against western warfare since the Kingdom of Jerusalem was sent to its grave. Any reasonable chance of them getting something stable out of their current situation would seem, to me, to come from some sort of negotiated settlement. They lost the first Intifada and they're losing this one.

And in my mind the Israelis are actually treating the Palestinians rather well. Look at Hamas' program. They don't recognize the Zionist state of Israel, they think Jews are pigs who need Moslem and Christian children to perform their rites and they are not very reasonable about any of this. And Israel is still acting relatively civil about this while their population is targeted by suicide bombers.

Israel has already made their Jump of Faith once by ratifying the Oslo Accords. The Palestinians didn't honor their treaty obligations, while Israel did. The Accords called for Israel to create the Palestinian Authority and expand it's area of authority by a set date if the Palestinians showed good faith in dearming their mujahadeen. It would be rather hard to argue that they did since while Arafat was wailing about the Israelis not honoring their part of the deal, Hamas was busy shooting rockets at Israeli settlements from secure PA areas.

Even judging by the rules by which they agreed to act the PA failed to honor its promises.

This is all about trust. When we recognize that it wouldn't be all that good of an idea for Israel to use Palestine as a nuclear testing ground, while it is equally a bad idea for the Palestinians to to try to blow up Israel one discotheque at a time, we have to come to the conclusion that the only way this conflict can ever be settled is for the Palestinians to actually start honoring their agreements. But they don't (and this is one of those socio-religious things) because
1) A Moslem does not agree to terms. He dictates terms.
2) They haven't felt enough pain to give up number one.

Limited warfare certainly predates Christ. The Romans for example... No, they burned and slaughtered cities that did not surrender. Ok, the Egyptians then... No. Seriously, I can't think of an example of societies who actually had set rules of warfare like those we employ before the gentleman's wars of post-1600 Europe. And even those were prone to be rather messy (mercenaries were often paid in booty).

In World War I both sides played mostly by the rules while both the Russians and the Germans had a tendency to chop off parts of your body if you were an enemy civilian in World War II. I think the only large-scale mostly-adherence to the Rules of War has been in Western Societies in the post-WWII world. Though the French did manage to make rather a hash of things in Algeria, though that might arguably be classified as a counter-insurgency action.

Regarding news coverage, I do think you Americans tend to underestimate the quality of your news networks. In Denmark, for example, only two channels are available who both cover the same stuff, and they are both organs of the state (owned by the state). Their coverage is both shallow and rather slanted. You can't imagine what absolute bollocks it is to watch a talking head spewing wile nonsense, all the while knowing that he's being paid for with your money through the license you have to pay for owning a TV set ($400 per household per year). At least when you watch CNN or Fox you know they're screwing you on their own dime. And you get your news faster. Half the footage from Iraq is syndicated from CNN or Fox.

When you factor in the bottomless support that the US gives to Israel, do consider that the Hamas is on the recipient end of rather large annual sums of Iranian oil money while Fatah is currently supported by both the UN, the EU, the US and a host of Islamic countries. Would the Palestinians have started the Intifada if they were not funded by Iran?

Much of the commotion in that part of the world is funded by governments with oil money. Big pockets and the Little Green Quran have also been rather instrumental in supporting and motivating the insurgency in Iraq.

In that part of the world there is no lack of sponsors for war. But I see only the US sponsoring peace with any degree of earnesty.

Posted by Peter (Denmark) at 2006-01-28 17:49

Well, you're now verging into a degree of anti-Islam bias that I'm not at all comfortable with, and I know enough about Islam to know that your generalities are simply false. They may be true of particular organizations in the region, but you're attributing them to the religion, which makes about as much sense as attributing similar characteristics to Christianity on the basis of the Crusades. I was worried in your previous message that you were going that way.

The conversation about who's right and who's wrong is just not an interesting one to me, so I don't have much reply to your take on the details other than to say that I think you're concentrating on particular types of damage and ignoring others. That's one of my root points. There are some interesting assumptions about what counts and what doesn't in all this, and it's not clear they're all correct. For example, you're upset at Hamas shooting missiles into Israel, and yet Israel was doing exactly the same thing and you don't mention that. My guess is that you consider the latter provoked, or more closely targetted, or some other such thing, but they look rather similar to me.

I'm coming to this from a perspective where both war and terrorism look horrific to me, and I find it deeply unappeal to argue about, in essence, whether rape is worse than murder or vice versa. Why Israel exercises some restraint is an interesting but probably unanswerable question; there are complicated reasons from morality to public relations to the privilege of power and not having to fight as hard as they could in order to still achieve ends.

The question of which side is on a stronger moral footing is, to me, a pointless discussion. Both are so far below my standards of civilized behavior that such a discussion feels to me like an exercise in finding ways to excuse the inexcusable by comparing it to other inexcusable acts.

As for the history of limited warfare, I must admit that I can't be bothered to go find cites for you, so disbelieve me if you wish, but I think you'll find that some notions of honorable and dishonorable combat, hostage taking, and similar conventions go back about as far as we have written records. The level of protection offered, and certainly the set of people protected, has changed greatly over the years, and I agree that the average population was not protected for most of history, but that's not the same thing as having no rules. Humans seem to naturally develop rules for combat, which they then often honor mostly in the breach.

I find the comparison between Iran oil money and US support of Israel amusing; it's kind of like comparing corporate funding to a loan from your uncle. Iran can't, for instance, give Palestinians the sort of military aid that the US gives Israel (even putting the matter of nuclear weapons to the side).

Anyway, I'm not sure that we're going to agree, and we're drifting very far afield from the context of my original comment. I'm not arguing that the former Palestinian government is somehow some model of proper behavior, or even that they're better than the Israeli government (I highly doubt they are). Nor am I saying that Hamas is a great thing for Palestine; they look to be a thoroughly nasty organization even still and one that is more likely to exacerbate the situation. I'm specifically responding to the bafflement over why the Palestinians would vote for them, something that seems rather more obvious to me than it appears to be to most news commentators (and which I highly doubt is largely driven by something so prosaic as corruption).

Posted by eagle at 2006-01-28 18:08

Preceding my comment, I do agree that we are probably not going to agree. At least we can agree on that.

That said, I believe that Winston Churchill had it right when he said (paraphrase)

Mr. Editor, I fight for my corner.
And I leave when the pub closes.

So you'll have to excuse me if I do a bit of brawling here. Please show me the door if I've overstayed my welcome.

As I've mentioned I do find your explanation for the election of Hamas representatives to the PA parliament to be true. People want a way out and Fatah can't supply that. Corruption probably was also a factor, though both Hamas and Fatah are thoroughly corrupt organizations, both earning a part of their income from protection rackets. That being said, Fatah has been in power for so long that they've certainly had more opportunity to become corrupt. A blog post about this can be seen at The Belmont Club (Google for "Belmont Club" to get URL)

Whether or not Islam is a "Religion of Peace" as some assert seems to depend largely on who you ask. In Europe, a large underclass of refugees has appeared over the last thirty years consisting mostly of Moslems being supported by the rather generous public welfare systems in these countries. An example of how a large part of Europe has come to view the Moslems can be seen at the Enough Blog enough!typepad!com(enough(. In Denmark, for instance, though Moslems comprise only 5% of the population, they account for around 40% of all violent crimes. I suppose you heard about the riots in Paris a few months ago. Moslems don't seem very modern minded to the average European, I can assure you that.

In the US it is my impression that the Moslem minority has integrated rather well, an effect, I think, of the demands that American society places on immigrants, obliging them to earn a living wage from day one with no opportunity for the large welfare checks for housewives and dependents possible in Europe. I understand that Sufi Islam is rather en vogue in Moslem society in America, and since Sufism actually is a bit more like Eastern religions such as Taoism than it is like regular "catholic" Islam, I can certainly appreciate that an American would have a different perspective on such things.

In the Middle East... Well, the Middle East is the place where Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf has the largest audience. I don't really think that many Moslems of the Middle East are quite aware to what degree they are being manipulated by the powers that be. Saudi Arabia with their wahabbism, Iran with the Shiites and various Sunni nations all spew the same hateful bile day in and day out at Israel and the West. To say that I think most Moslems follow the Mekka way of Islam would be wishful thinking. Moslems in the Middle East are Medinans -- proud, yet petty -- dignified, yet mean.

It is not quite clear to me which side in you argument about the various funding sources is corporate and which side is the uncle. To me it seems that the military aid the US gives Israel is of a rather benign nature. Mostly tanks and planes designed to function in a major conflict such as the three wars Israel was forced into during the last sixty years. Nuclear bombs, as we have learned during the cold war, are even great stabilizers when both parties are rational. When not, I'd damn rather have the rational people have them than the irrational. For more information on who supplied Israel with the expertise to build nuclear weapons, look up The Vela Incident and Israeli WMDs at wikipedia. I've read similar reports other places so at least this time the Wiki Truth does not exist in a void.

The aid to Hamas and Fatah, on the other hand, mostly goes to finance suicide bombers and rockets, both so imprecise that even if aimed at military targets they are as likely to hit civilians.

In the immediate conflict, the question of right and wrong must at some time be faced. And, on the balance, I think that there's a lot more speaking for the Israelis than against them. The rules of combat the Israelis have tried to follow are the most humane in history. The Palestinians, on the other hand follow no rules.

On the issue of war and terrorism, both are of course rather horrid things. Both involve killings and tragedies. But wheras war has a limited, non-Clausewitzian objective, terrorism is total war. And in the end, we must recognize that values exist, the destruction of which are not preferable to death. Otherwise, the first person who does not think so is your master, you his slave.

For me, pacifism is not an option. The religious sage may preach it, but does he practice it when his daughter is blown up by a suicide bomber?

I hope you won't mind me quoting one of your great humorists, P.J. O'Rourke, on pacifism:
"He believes he's being moral. I believe he's being stupid. We're in perfect agreement."
-- P.J. O'Rourke, 'An Atheist in the Foxhole'

Posted by Peter (Denmark) at 2006-01-29 05:59

The essay's an interesting read, but it has one fundamental flaw I can see: a false dichotomy between 'fight by the rules' and 'terrorism'. This ignores the whole field of guerilla warfare, in between; a fight that's not by the rules, but doesn't target civilians either. I don't know myself what contemporary opinion on guerilla warfare was when it was being used against us, in Vietnam, but in grade-school history it was painted relatively favorably when used against the British in the Revolutionary War. So I think it's at least possible that, framed in the right way, it wouldn't get the same knee-jerk reaction that operations against civilians does.

Or to put it another way, there is indeed a third fighting option for the Palestinians (or other groups like the IRA, back in the day) to take, not fighting by rules that they would lose at but not targeting civilians either. So even looking at it from the Palestinian point of view, I think targeting civilians is worthy of condemnation.

(As a side note on Hamas and U.S. news coverage - one aspect I remember seeing covered in the past, if only on NPR and in Time magazine, is that Hamas has also been cited for extensive social/relief work. Things like food distribution, basic health care, and education, in areas where governmental agencies were not providing it. From the outside, it can be viewed as self-serving efforts to curry favor, and no doubt there's an element of that; and it certainly doesn't change the vileness of their military campaign and calls for extermination. But it's also an affirmative reason for a Palestinian to vote for them, beyond the corruption and the desire to strike out at Israel.)

Posted by Travis Butler at 2006-01-29 12:07

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