Saturday, 31 July 2021

a fire in the night

There are few words and phrases to which revulsion is an almost instinctive reflex, where the idea behind the word or phrase is so repugnant that the reaction of most people is to avert their eyes and nervously change the subject. Although most concepts are capable of bearing more than one interpretation, of being evaluated from more than one point of view, some ideas are so far beyond the limits of basic human decency that outrage is the only acceptable human response.

Terrorism is one such word. It’s not a word that people want to hear; it’s not an activity that they want to hear about. It’s someone else’s problem. But there is a price to pay for drawing the curtains and pretending that you can shut out the world, because if you don’t understand a problem, then you cannot begin to understand how to solve it.

American presidents, who are in the best position to attempt such a solution, clearly do not try to shut out the world. They don’t need to. They can do very much whatever they want to do. Whatever they want to do in terms of direct action, that is. In terms of action that is designed to achieve a given end, the record is less impressive. The American military juggernaut may have squashed the al-Qaeda training camps and toppled the hated Taliban from power in Afghanistan in 2001, but this has done nothing to weaken support for al-Qaeda by the poor and oppressed throughout the Middle East. How could it? To combat terrorism, you first have to understand why it happens, which American leaders have singularly failed to do. This is not to excuse the use of random violence, in any circumstances. There is no excuse.

That is to say, there is no excuse from the comfort of our middle-class armchairs. But place yourself in the mind of a young Palestinian: late teens; limited education; no job prospects; surrounded by fanatical clerics. The Israeli Army plays its part in moulding the finished product as it brutalizes the populations of the West Bank and Gaza, tearing down the houses of suspected militants, targeting known militants for summary execution, and arresting whomsoever it pleases. The clerics wouldn’t have to try too hard to convince such a young man who their enemy was and—the next logical step—how best to fight back.

Thus far, I’ve not attempted to actually define terrorism. Most people believe that they can recognize the phenomenon when they see it. Surprisingly, however, a definition that satisfies all parties to the debate is more elusive than you might think. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11th September 2001 were clearly acts of terrorism, but this is an extreme case and so is easy to categorize. However, although terrorism may be easy to recognize in its most extreme manifestations, where the moral imperative behind the action is as abhorrent to the vast majority as the action itself, you will quickly become submerged in a morass of moral relativism and conflicting interpretations of the same event once you move away from the simple distinctions of those extremes.

At the opposite pole to the attacks by al-Qaeda on the United States, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 by Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist, precipitated the greatest war in the history of the human race to that time and could also be categorized as an act of terrorism, if we take terrorism to include the targeted murder of a public figure by members of a dissident group.

However, if we accept this partial definition, what are we to make of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by Czech partisans in Prague in 1940? Few would fail to applaud such an action, even though in the event it cost the existence of the village of Lidice and its inhabitants. It is important to see the distinction between these two examples, because it illustrates the definitional quagmire that we are on the point of falling into. It is this: if we applaud the assassination of the Nazi gauleiter, then we are saying in effect that anything is permissible provided that the cause is just. But who defines the justice of a cause? The only moral position that one can take in such a situation is that nothing justifies murder, however acute the grievance, but then you would have to be prepared to die for such a belief. That takes a lot of doing, but as we are all learning to our cost, some are indeed prepared to do precisely that, even if it involves the death of hundreds of innocent bystanders.