Defending the virtues of liberty, free markets, and civilization... plus some commentary on the passing scene.

Freedom's Fidelity

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Lee Harris - Palestinian's Moment of Truth

Without a doubt, Lee Harris's Civilization and Its Enemies is the most impressive book I have read in the last couple of years. The tome sprung from his incredibly well received essay 'Al-Qaeda's Fantasy Ideology'published in Policy Review. In short, Harris is probably the leading post 9/11 thinker out there. With relentless logic, which often lead to disturbing conclusions, he is certainly a man you want to pay attention to. His latest essay is no less impressive, the thesis being that the Palestinians, right now, are facing their moment of truth. I'll go over a couple of the grafs that stuck out to me, but the essay is pretty in depth, if you are at all interested in this subject, including the relative merits of legitimate and illegitimate terrorist warfare, and why the Palestinian model is different, this is a must must read.

He begins:
The Palestinian people stand at a critical moment in their history. They can rally behind the efforts of their new leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to bring an end to the Palestinian tradition of terror, or they can continue to give their support to those who are pursuing a fatal and futile fantasy -- a fantasy that has cost the lives of thousands of innocent men, women, and children, both Israelis and Palestinians.

The fantasy in question is the fantasy that one day the so called "Zionist occupation" will end. And the reason it is a fantasy can be easily detected in the phrase "the Zionist occupation."

The state of Israel has long since ceased to be a Zionist project. Like it or not, Israel is a historical fait accompli, a state as real and genuine as any that has ever existed in history. If the Israeli people could have been run out of the area, they would have left long ago. Those who are there are seriously there. They aren't leaving in the future. That is why the Palestinian people have only one realistic choice before them: they must work in every way possible to eliminate the terror virus that was permitted to spread among them under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, especially now when the Palestinians at long last appear to have a leader who is trying to bring an end to Palestine's reign of terror.

Terrorism is a Palestinian tradition that must end. But in order to bring about this desperately needed change, not only must the Palestinian people cease to show sympathy with their indigenous terrorist organizations, so too must Westerners, both in Europe and in the United States. Sympathy with the Palestinian people is in order, but not sympathy for the institution that has held them back from all progress toward a genuinely responsible civic polity.

For that is what terrorism has become among the Palestinians -- it is their peculiar institution, the way slavery was the peculiar institution of the American South in the nineteenth century. For, like the slave system, terrorism, deployed as a means of achieving political goals, ends by poisoning the society that permits it to flourish in its midst. The only group that draws any advantage from its use are those who are ruthless enough to use it. Like slavery, it corrupts whatever it touches, and is of value only to those who live off it. Like slavery, it appears to be an institution that can only be destroyed by those who are willing to use extreme and drastic measures to eradicate it. And, lastly, like American slavery, Palestinian terrorism has its defenders, many of them decent and well-intentioned individuals. In what follows I will try to explain why these individuals are mistaken in extending their sympathy to organizations like Hamas and other "militant" Palestinian groups.
Surprisingly, Harris says that the West shares most of the blame for the "political triumph of Islamic terrorism." The only thing that surprised me more than this assertion was the persuasiveness with which he supports it:
....If the word "triumph" sounds premature or alarmist, ask yourself what nation state has had the impact on the geopolitical world order that the Islamic terrorists have had in the last half century. Without a navy or an air force or an army, without any of the paraphernalia of a normal nation state, a handful of terrorist organizations have managed to seize the center stage of world affairs, and have been deciding the fate of nations. They have all but shattered the international system of alliances upon which the Pax Americana depended; they have turned many of our former allies into current enemies; they have rallied fifth columnists within every Western democracy, including our own, to champion the cause of radical anti-Americanism; they have seduced the progressive Left into defending the most reactionary regimes in the world. They have turned one European election to their own purposes, and have thereby acquired a technique that can be all too easily applied to other elections, raising a question of the survivability of parliamentary democracy in the face of future coordinated terrorist strikes. They have put the governance of the United States on permanent hold by putting the fight against terrorism on top of our national agenda, where it will remain as long as the terrorists are willing to act to keep it there. In short, it is the terrorists who are calling the shots.
It certainly takes fewer resources to disrupt than to rule, the terrorists have exploited this fact to the fullest.

Skipping ahead, something that irks me to no end is the oft-repeated canard of 'violence begets violence' or some variation of that. Here's a little taste of Harris's deconstruction of that concept. (my emphasis)
You walk into my house and shoot my wife dead. I chase you out of the house and gun you down in the street. The next day your son kills me; and two days following my son kills your son.

Now here is a cycle of violence, and yet can there be any doubt who started this cycle? You did. True, I may have done things that, in your opinion, justified your violence; but provided I did not use physical violence against you or yours, then you were the first one to escalate to the deliberate use of violence.
So how could I have stopped the cycle of violence? Well, by not doing anything to you or your kin when you killed my wife.

But would this have stopped the cycle of violence? What if you came the next day and shot my son, and I still didn't use violence to avenge myself. In this case, is my refusal to stoop to the use of violence a factor promoting the end of violence, or an incentive to more violence on the part of the person who first decided to use it?
The "cycle of violence" is a cant phrase, like so many other cant phrases circulating today, in that it permits us to feel as if we have said something profound when in fact we are talking utter nonsense. Yes, violence, once begun, often breeds violence -- but, as history amply demonstrates, violence breeds violence no matter how the other party responds to it. Fighting violence breeds it, but so too does appeasing violence. Furthermore, massive and overwhelming violence, far from continuing the cycle of violence, often stops it in its tracks, like the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So what is the phrase "cycle of violence" good for? Well, for deceiving ourselves into thinking that we can be even-handed and fair-minded in our approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since it is all just a cycle of violence, we do not need to take sides, or decide whose violence is justifiable. All violence is equally wrong, on this view; hence the role of the honest broker is to deplore both Israeli violence and Palestinian violence as if there were no difference between them.
But of course there is a difference between them as Harris explains. The Israeli's use violence in an attempt to prevent and punish terrorism, while the Palestinians use it to disrupt attempts at peaceful outcomes, and while it is impossible to try and determine 'who started it' it is quite obvious who is not trying to stop it.

Like I said, the essay goes into much more depth, including some historical comparisons and contrasts with the more Clausewitzian Algerian model of terrorism which was used to push out the French colonialists as comparisons to Tim McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. Harris does the service of clarifying the often blury lens through which we try and view the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Read the whole thing, as they say.


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