Death, war, and terrorism: A look behind the news
We must encourage the Arab-Islamic world to discover the path back to themselves.
DEATH, WAR, AND TERRORISM Photo: Alberto Giacometti (Sculptor)
Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti's Man Pointing gesticulates ominously. Emaciated, skeletal and tormented, it is an artistic expression of humankind's unending march toward suffering and annihilation. Like the sculptor's gaunt and unnaturally elongated figure, each and every one of us has now become a riveted observer and sometimes, a casualty.
Today, we are all threatened by ecstatic sacrificial killings that masquerade as “national liberation,” “self-determination,” or any other self-justifying forms of “resistance.”
What, more precisely, is the origin of this threat? What has it to do with future terrorism? What does it have to do with still-impending war? And what conceivable interactions or “synergies” may exist between coming war and terror?
Art is a lie that lets us see the truth.
We first need to inquire, therefore: Where is Giacometti's man pointing? Does he point, dreadfully, toward the masses of likely victims, or, judgmentally, to the always-unrepentant perpetrators? Does his frightfully extended finger indict an entire species – have we simply scandalized our own creation? Or rather, does it cast responsibility only upon certain individuals and groups of individuals?
The ceaseless problem with war and terrorism is a continuing expression of primal human behavior. Such behavior is the result of certain compelling personal needs, and seemingly irresistible collective expectations.
More than anything else, sometimes even more than the consuming drive to avoid death, human beings need to belong.
This need can be manifested harmlessly, as in cases of extreme sports hysteria or rock concerts, or it can be displayed perniciously, as in war and terrorism.
In any event, the underlying dynamic is always the same: the individual feels empty and insignificant apart from his or her membership in the herd. Sometimes that herd is the state. Sometimes it is the Tribe. Sometimes it is Faith – the one true faith. Sometimes it is the "Liberation" or "Revolutionary" movement. Whatever the particular herd of the moment, it is the persistent craving to belong that brings forth the terrible downfall of individual responsibility, and a resultant triumph of the collective will.
Until certain humans learn how to temper their overwhelming desire to belong, all military and political attempts to deal with war and terrorism will fail. To succeed in our quest for peace and security, we could all benefit more from understanding Freud, Jung, and Dostoyevsky, than from re-reading Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz.
Today, the overwhelming human desperation to belong is most visible in the Arab world.
How significant is the human desperation to gain a real understanding of war and terrorism? Here, the philosopher Nietzsche can be helpful. Profoundly aware of the harms that can be generated by immense attractions of group membership, Nietzsche declares with remarkable prescience: "To lure many away from the herd, for that I have come. The people and the herd shall be angry with me. Zarathustra wants to be called a robber by the shepherds."
The prime dangers of war and terrorism stem from susceptible individuals joining certain, violent herds. Not every herd is violent, of course, but war and terrorism cannot take place in the absence of herds.
When individuals form a herd, the destructive dynamics of the mob may be released. The anonymity of the herd lowers each person's moral and intellectual level to a point where even mass killing is acceptable. In this regard, genocide must “join” war and terrorism as an expected consequence of selected, collective identifications.
Publicly, all Arab-Islamic war and terror is inspired by the will of Allah. In reality, however, the net effect of suicide bombings and mass slaughters is always to drown out any hint of godliness…of human empathy, compassion, or kindness. In the presumed name of God, Arab-Islamic war and terror imposes neither salvation nor holiness upon the world, but instead the breathless rhythm of ritual murder and mass slaughter.
From a policy perspective, these points should now be kept in mind in Washington and Jerusalem, where the developing ascendancy of President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt offers a current example of serious “herd danger.”
Although the killers would have us believe that the deity is their sole inspiration and special witness, the culmination of their delirium is singularly diabolical. The supreme irony of Arab-Islamic terror is that it has prevented Man from remembering God. Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, would say that such madness has somehow substituted a corrosive “I/It” relationship for the indispensable and God-tempered connections of “I and Thou.”
Urgent investigations of expanding Arab-Islamic jihad against the United States and Israel, should consider a close study of human meaning. To prevent growing violence against innocents, Arab-Islamic terrorist groups must be shorn of their nefarious capacity to bestow importance and self-worth. However, before this can happen, individuals who turn to terrorist groups in desperate attempts to belong will have to first discover far more personal sources of belonging.
An underlying cause of terrorist crimes is the individual’s incapacity to introspect and draw authentic meaning from within.
At its heart, the “cumulative” problem of war, terror, and genocide is always a displacement of human centeredness. Anxious to draw meaning from their own inwardness, human beings draw closer and closer to the herd. In all too many cases, this herd spawns hatreds that make mass killing desirable. Fostering an incessant refrain of "us" versus "them" prevents people from becoming fully human, while simultaneously promoting the celebration of the death of “outsiders."
Many years ago, when Palestinian mothers and their children crowded into a newly-constructed "museum" to celebrate the recent bombing immolation of Israeli mothers and children in a Tel-Aviv Sbarro pizza restaurant, it was not fellow mothers and children that they recognized. Rather, they saw only "Israelis" or "Zionists.”
In principle, each person contains at least the potential to become fully human; an empathetic possibility that could reduce corrosive loyalties to destructive group herds. It is only by realizing and nurturing this innate potential that we can seek lasting remedies. Futile as it may seem, our immediate task must be to encourage the Arab-Islamic world to discover the path back to themselves, as genuine, compassionate individuals.
Otherwise, large elements of this world will continue to embrace the homicidal ideals of a religious, nationalistic, or ideological collectivism. For the aspiring “martyr,” especially, this dreadful life of conformance and fear could soon make biological or nuclear assaults against enemy noncombatants seem sacred. We may also have to confront variations of the suicide-bomber, perhaps even a nuclear “suicide state.” Iran, or perhaps a post-coup Pakistan, comes quickly to mind.
Prospectively developing geopolitical realignments between Egypt and Iran are an urgent case in point.
The writer is a professor of international law at Purdue University. He is the author of many books and articles dealing with terrorism, international law and the law of war.