Monday, June 24, 2002

Western reactions to the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign, and to the strong support it receives from Palestinian society at large, fall into roughly two categories: some view it as a pathological phenomenon, an insane, self-destructive "death cult"; others see it as a legitimate, rational and morally defensible response to oppression coupled with military weakness. Both views are deeply mistaken; the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign, far from being an outburst of insanity, is a perfectly normal, human response to circumstances. But the normal, human response is not always the moral one; at times, in fact, it can be deeply immoral, even downright evil. This is one of those times.

As Matthew Parris, an unabashed apologist for the suicide bombers, points out, the ideal of self-sacrifice for the sake of country in wartime is ancient and venerated; it exists in the West as much as in the Middle East. Attacks on civilians are a different matter; but as recently as World War II the Western powers were bombing Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo and of course Hiroshima and Nagasaki, more to demoralize the enemy than to achieve concrete military objectives. Today, although similar attacks against purely or overwhelmingly civilian targets would generally be considered unconscionable, the historical attacks themselves are viewed with considerable ambivalence, and serious arguments are mounted in their defense.

In fact, it's not difficult to imagine a scenario in which most observers would concede the legitimacy of attacks on civilian targets. Suppose that an entire population (Palestinians, say)--men, women and children--were being rounded up and slaughtered en masse, and that suicide bombings stood a reasonable chance of slowing or even ending the killing. Couldn't a case be made for them, under those circumstances? Mightn't sacrificing the genocidal population's civilians in order to save many more of the victim population's civilians be a defensible tactic?

Of course, Palestinians are not being rounded up and slaughtered en masse. (Indeed, if they were, then those doing the killing would be unlikely to be deterred by a few civilian deaths on their own side. Palestinian terrorists, for example, are, as the suicide bombings themselves make clear, no more reluctant to sacrifice their own than they are to kill Israelis for the sake of their cause.) As Parris himself admits, "the dispute is about the ownership of land", not survival. Now, murdering civilians in tribal disputes over land is not irrational or insane behavior; it is how human beings have conducted their affairs for countless millenia. It is also the essence of barbarism, primitive savagery, amoral brutality. If civilization means anything, it is the end of such lawlessness and the advent of less bloodthirsty ways of resolving disputes over territory. Most of the ideas and ideals of domestic and international law are founded on the desire to prevent exactly the kind of butchery that Palestinian terrorists are perpetrating, and their apologists defending.

But the defenses always restrict themselves to Palestinian behavior alone--and for good reason. As Laurence Grafstein points out, Palestinian terrorists are "relying on the superior morality of their enemies"; if Israel were suddenly to accept Parris' gruesomely callous exoneration of murder for the sake of land ownership, then their subsequent conflict with the Palestinians would be short, extremely bloody, and a complete, virtually painless victory for Israel, resulting in the effective total annihilation of the Palestinian population. It would be no worse than than what thousands of nations have inflicted upon much more innocent enemies in their day, over the centuries. But that wouldn't make it morally justifiable. Perhaps the defenders of Palestinian terrorism should ask themselves why.

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